Gordon Parks 1912–
American filmmaker, author, and photographer.
Parks overcame racial obstacles in Hollywood to become the first prominent black director. His work depicts his own struggle to conquer extreme poverty and prejudice rather than become embittered by them.
In 1937, in the midst of the Depression, Parks saw a portfolio of photographs taken for the Farm Security Administration, which inspired him to buy an inexpensive camera. He became a fashion photographer, but devoted his spare time to photographing the ghettos of Chicago. The resulting collection of photographs won him a Julius Rosenwald fellowship established for struggling artists. An apprenticeship with Roy Stryker in the Farm Security Administration led to a job as a photographer for Life magazine.
In 1963 Parks published his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. An extremely popular work, it was translated into nine languages and provided the vehicle for Parks's directing talents. Although critics find the story touching, they are most impressed by the visual beauty of the film version. Here Parks's talent as a photographer is in full flower.
This film was followed by Shaft and Shaft's Big Score, stories of a black private eye working in the ghetto. Despite the flash and slickness of these films, critics praised Parks for portraying blacks as unique individuals in contrast to common cinematic stereotypes.
Leadbelly, Parks's most recent film, has been criticized for depicting whites as unfavorably as blacks are usually depicted. It is charged that Parks's characterization of the protagonist is inaccurate. Parks, however, feels it is a director's prerogative to make judgments and character interpretations. In this case, Parks parallels his own life with Leadbelly's. The blues singer's battles with the law and his struggle to be accepted as an artist are similar to Parks's own difficulties. The lament Leadbelly sings is an apt description of Parks's attitude towards the hardships he has surmounted: "You ain't broke my mind. You ain't broke my body. And you ain't broke my spirit." (See also CLC, Vol. 1, Contemporary Authors, Vols. 41-44, rev. ed., and Something About the Author, Vol. 8.)