“I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, and poverty.” –Gordon Parks
In 1969, when he adapted his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel The Learning Tree for the screen, he broke another barrier: At age 56, Parks became the first Black man to direct a major Hollywood studio film. In addition to directing and producing, Parks wrote the screenplay and also composed the film’s lush symphonic score.
Long overlooked, The Learning Tree has been on my list of films to write about since I began this series, so it’s impeccable timing that the film was just reissued by the Criterion Collection. The Learning Tree is a major motion picture with an independent spirit that explores complex social and racial issues in ways that continue to resonate. In a profile of Parks, Roger Ebert described the film as “a deep and humanistic portrait of growing up black in America.” It’s also a gorgeously photographed and carefully reconstructed period piece that provides a window of insight into 1920s America.
There are, in fact, two young Black men at the heart of the film: Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson), Gordon Parks’s alter ego, and Marcus Savage (Alex Clarke), Newt’s rival. After an early altercation with a local farmer, the two find themselves heading down different life paths. During the first half of the film, Parks cuts back and forth between their two storylines, comparing and contrasting their experiences.
Newt’s parents and extended family are determined to raise him with the right values, and to provide for him as best they can. He experiences first love, and his courtship of the new girl in town, Arcella (Mira Waters), unfolds like a wondrous romance, with long walks, long stares, a picnic in the park, and a magical snowfall on Christmas eve.
Marcus, who fails on his attempt to escape from a juvenile detention facility that same Christmas eve and is brought back shivering with cold, experiences the world much differently. He understands, both viscerally and intellectually, the ways that his race and lack of social status will help determine his fate. He also recognizes the ways in which adult authority figures uphold and abuse this power dynamic. A wonderful, empathetic performance by Clarke provides a window into Marcus’s anger.
Late in the movie, an incident occurs that threatens the delicate social fabric of the town and inadvertently reunites the two of them. Ultimately, Newt must decide whether to stand up for justice when doing so may result in a much greater injustice that will bring pain and suffering to the Black community.
Parks grew up in Fort Scott, Kansas, and he returned there to film the movie, revisiting many of the locations where he spent his childhood. Lensed by Burnett Guffey, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, The Learning Tree has the look and feel of a classic Hollywood film. Yet, for the most part, its style is naturalistic. And although it’s tinged with nostalgia, it’s also imbued with clear-eyed social commentary. As Hank Willis Thomas points out in one of the excellent features included on the Criterion reissue, many of the themes, such as institutionalized racism, continue to be highly relevant.
The Learning Tree marked a late-career shift from photography to filmmaking for Gordon Parks. Two years later, he captured the Zeitgeist with Shaft, one of the earliest and best-known Blaxploitation movies. A sequel, Shaft’s Big Score!, followed, along with several other features. In the 1980s, he helmed the excellent made-for-television film Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey for the PBS series “American Playhouse.”
Still, for me, The Learning Tree remains the place to start exploring Parks’s filmography. It’s so fully and assuredly realized that it’s easy to forget it’s his directorial debut. The Criterion release includes several features that give insight into the making of the movie. Even more crucially, it also preserves two short documentary films that Parks made around the same time.
The first, “Diary of a Harlem Family,” features a montage of still images from Parks’s 1968 Life Magazine story profiling the Fontanelle family. Parks narrates, and his words illuminate the social issues that they struggle with clearly and poetically. While working on the article, Parks embedded himself with the family, gaining their trust, their friendship, and their genuine collaboration.
The title of his second documentary, “The World of Piri Thomas,” greatly undersells this intense, profound, emotionally devastating, and unflinchingly honest work. Much more than a profile of the famous Nuyorican poet, it gives an insider’s view into daily life in Spanish Harlem. Once again, it showcases Parks’s ability to get close to his subjects, collaborate with them in a genuine and meaningful way, and capture intimate moments off-limits to most outsiders.
“The World of Piri Thomas” is as raw and gritty as The Learning Tree is stately and elegant. Thomas reads excerpts from his work in voice-over, as Parks documents life on the streets and in the housing projects of Spanish Harlem with a 16mm film camera.
Thomas’s dramatic reenactment of his attempt to kick his heroin addiction cold turkey (thankfully successful), combined with long takes of actual heroin addicts shooting up, is truly painful to watch—but vital to witness. The intense, visceral quality of the images on the screen matches that of Thomas’s language.
The films of Gordon Parks shed insight into the challenges and roadblocks embedded in American society. They also add a great deal to the legacy of one of the most important photographers of the 20th Century.
The Learning Tree (directed by Gordon Parks). 35mm film (color), 107 min., 1969.