“Beasts of the Southern Wild” has a kindred spirit – in its themes, its precocious child star and its Oscar pedigree.
Exactly 40 years ago, the 1972 film “Sounder” received four Academy Award nominations – the same number as “Beasts” this time around – in honor of a story that featured pre-teen Kevin Hooks playing a child finding his way amid a rural family facing a crisis. Oscar noms went to “Sounder” for best picture, lead actor Paul Winfield, lead actress Cicely Tyson and writer of the adapted screenplay Lonnie Elder III.
Hooks spoke about the two movies Thursday during a lunch break from directing an episode of CBS’ “The Good Wife.” (He’s pictured at right on the set of ABC’s “Last Resort” last summer.) “Sounder,” he said, offered a combination of truth, beauty and simplicity.
“I think it really was steeped in honesty,” Hooks said, “and I think that’s the thing that resonated with audiences. They were able to relate to these people because it was a story about humanity, and it transcended race, gender and religion.
“Especially for the times, I think there was an incredible dichotomy of material in the early ’70s that featured African-Americans. On the one hand, you had some really entertaining classic films (that) were eventually categorized as blaxplotation, that were brilliant films – ‘Shaft,’ ‘Superfly,’ which was out the same year. And on the flip side of it you had a film like ‘The Learning Tree’ (1969) or ‘Sounder,’ which was a much more dramatic and honest portrayal of African-Americans. I think that was something that people really responded to.”
At the Academy Awards, “Sounder” ran into the juggernaut that was “The Godfather,” losing to the mob epic for picture, actor (Marlon Brando) and adapted screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo), as well as to lead actress Liza Minnelli of “Cabaret.”
Nevertheless, there have been few films like “Sounder” that have achieved its level of success, which makes the juxtaposition with “Beasts” four decades later so striking. Hooks saw “Beasts” this past weekend and said he was “amazed” by it.
“I was moved by it in ways that were totally unanticipated,” he said. “I think quite simply I was astounded. It was a remarkable film. It was clearly one of the best films if not the best film I have seen all year, and the handling of the material, the script and the direction was outstanding.”
Hooks, who turned 13 on the “Sounder” set and earned a Golden Globe nomination for most promising male newcomer thanks to the movie (before skipping the ceremony in order to avoid missing school at home in Philadelphia), was wowed by Oscar-nominated “Beasts” star Quvenzhane Wallis (left), calling her performance “nothing short of brilliant.”
“It was something that really touched me,” Hooks said, “because, although I was twice her age when I started ‘Sounder,’ I was fortunate enough to have a director in Martin Ritt who was able to take raw talent and give me the tools I needed to build a performance. … But I have to tell you, she brought such raw emotion and discipline and skill to that role, it’s hard to believe she was only 6 years old.
“I have to say it is clearly an Academy Award-winning performance. Whether or not that comes to pass or not is yet to be determined, but it is clearly a performance, should she win, one cannot argue with.”
Despite the intervening years, it was also hard for Hooks not to be struck by the parallels between “Sounder” and “Beasts,” such as the complicated relationships between each father and his child.
“Its brutal honesty in the study of a family unit dealing with adversity is very similar,” he added. “The family in ‘Sounder’ of course was dealing with the difficult times of the Depression and the basic needs of any human being to have food to eat and a roof over your head, and that clearly is something is magnified many times in ‘Beasts.'”
But Hooks also pointed out a key difference between the pics.
“As personal a story as ‘Beasts’ was, it felt to me like a much larger film,” Hooks said. “The challenges that were faced from a production standpoint, to be able to take a major catastrophic event like Katrina and present that in a fairly efficient way and with the budget constraints they had to deal with was very impressive, and I thought they were extremely successful in accomplishing that. I think ‘Sounder’ was a much smaller, much more personal film on a lot of levels (and) didn’t have those challenges.
“The (other) difference is the child actor got nominated this time, so I’m rooting for her.”
Hooks hardly seemed bothered that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination, but he is disappointed that Ritt was passed over for directing “Sounder,” an omission Hooks finds interesting amid this year’s chaotic directing race. Hooks attributed Ritt’s absence from the Oscars to the legacy of the McCarthy-era blacklist, calling him “the victim of some of the darker politics of this country.”
Interestingly, Hooks, who co-starred in projects like “The White Shadow” before becoming a director, went on to helm a television remake of “Sounder” (after getting over misgivings about revisiting a project that “could not be improved upon at all”) – and had a life-changing experience on that set as well.
“It was emotionally overwhelming at times,” he recalled. “My intimacy with the material made it a very unique experience, and it was also a cathartic experience. I think the reason for that was my parents, at the time of the making of ‘Sounder,’ were going through a divorce, which they kept from me because obviously the film is so much about family and the closeness of the family.
“I never associated those issues with that film until I revisited it some 30 years later, and I realized at that time how much of it I had suppressed. It took on a much more intense and complex connotation for me, and I tried to parlay that into my direction of the material and with the actor, but I was not prepared for the deep emotions that rose when I revisited that material.”
Whatever happens with “Beasts” at the Oscars, it will be interesting to see if it grabs hold on the current generation of young people the way “Sounder” did 40 years ago, when seeing it was practically a rite of passage.
“I think it still comes up from time to time,” Hooks said. “There are people who have grown up with that film … it has continued to be part of their upbringing and I think part of who they are, the experience touched them so much. It is really tremendously gratifying to be associated with a film that is classic.”