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.)
Gordon Parks is a still photographer. He directed The Learning Tree, his first motion picture. It is still born. Dare I say primitive? Gordon Parks is black. If he wasn't nobody would pay much attention to his picture. But he is, and everybody is giving the film much more attention and praise than it deserves….
I am also sorry that the first massive, lavish, technicolor, mass distributed film by a black man should be so reassuring … like Green Pastures. Parks' remembrance of his boyhood is unaffected but middle-brow, like The Supremes doing Frank Sinatra tunes. The only charitable thing I can think of to say about it is that it is free of self-pity and bombast…. The Learning Tree has some of the stiltedness and some of the sensitivity of Truman Capote's childhood reminiscences. Does the idea of a black Truman Capote strike you as oddly as it does me? Does the world need another Capote of any color? Let's try another. I think Parks sees himself as a mini Orson Welles. In addition to directing, he wrote the screenplay, from his novel of the same name, and scored the film. I guess I am scoring it as well. Only God can make a tree.
Susan Rice, "Reviews: 'The Learning Tree'," in Take One (copyright © 1969 by Unicorn Publishing Corp.), Vol. 2, No. 3, January-February 1969, p. 25.
[A] film that must be rated a failure despite its high aspirations is Gordon Parks's The Learning Tree, based upon his autobiographical novel. The fact that a Negro has been able to recall his own past with considerable affection and nostalgia is, I suppose, a good sign, and certainly the fact that a major studio … has encouraged him to do so is virtually a cause for celebration. But the celebration stops abruptly as cliché piles on cliché, as the past becomes bathed in the ineffable glow of homely virtues and self-sacrifices that transcend belief.
This is not to imply that Mr. Parks has saccharined his own life story to make it more palatable and acceptable to a general audience…. The hard core is there, but its edges are blurred, indistinct, often maudlin. It is odd, particularly at this time, to find a movie that surveys the life of the Negro in the Twenties with such deep underlying feelings of approbation. Even the film's solitary gesture of defiance—when at the end young Newt … refuses the white sheriff's proffered ride—seems to be accompanied by some rueful shaking of the head.
Arthur Knight, "Little Lulus," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1969 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LII, No. 32, August 9, 1969, p. 22.∗
The pleasures of "The Learning Tree," an awkward but greatly affecting movie, are all bound up with nostalgia for a vanished land in which barefooted farm boys could do cartwheels through unbounded fields of yellow flowers, in which a preacher could implore the Lord to "deliver our young from cigarettes, from dancing, from drinking, from flapper skirts," in which an amorous young man could give his girl a bottle of violet water and a card, especially made up to go with it, that said: "Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet and so are you."…
Parks has made, among several other things, a predictably pictorial period piece in soft-spoken Technicolor. He has made a lovely small movie about boyhood; not black boyhood or white boyhood so much as human boyhood, the maybehood that follows babyhood. He has also made a movie about the perilous plight of a black boy, confronted constantly by the sudden, sometimes violent, death of friends and family, who's still naive enough or brave enough to believe in the future.
The outward trappings of his life are as reassuringly bourgeois as the outside of a Watts bungalow—a cohesive family dominated by a strong, warm mother, church picnics, white shirts to school, some white friends, even a white piano teacher for a privileged black few in his community. In reality, though, the whites have the upper hand—on occasion the upper fist—and blacks are firmly steered away from dangerously white aspirations. The gifted young high-school student learns from his white teacher, just as Malcolm Little did in "The Autobiography of Malcolm X," that Negro children are simply not college material.
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[Most] of our pictures with and about Negroes these days lack authentic black backgrounds and thinking—and are a disappointment. Instead of just making films with some Negro actors, the studios would be wise to begin their planning with Negro culture, realistic Negro themes, and then select their working staff who will make the picture and be in it.
To the credit of Warner Bros.-Seven Arts they did just that in signing the famous photographer Gordon Parks to film his autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree…. The film is incredibly beautiful as it captures this 1920 Kansas town and countryside; perhaps too beautiful…. Too often director Parks allows a scene to start with a stunning Technicolor picture, develop with movement, and then end as another stunning picture. This technique slows up the movie, which is crowded with incidents one after the other all illustrating injustice, intolerance, charity, kindness, the behavior of the good people and bad (too many of the episodes are smothered in clichés and sentimental corn). If "The Learning Tree" is somewhat disappointing it is so because it had so much going for it that we expected too much from Gordon Parks. He will do better in his next movie, especially if he learned from "The Learning Tree" that film-making is not a one-man job. (pp. 543-44)
Philip T. Hartung, "Black, White and Technicolor," in Commonweal (copyright © 1969 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. XC, No. 20, September 5, 1969, pp. 543-45.∗
Shaft (first name John) is a black private detective who is a cross between Sam Spade and James Bond. He is the hero of a modishly photographed, but rather old-fashioned, private-eye melodrama directed by black former photo journalist and still photographer Gordon Parks. Despite a difficult-to-follow plot—about the grudge kidnapping of the daughter of a black racketeer by the Mafia—and an unabashed racial militance in tone (tempered however by good humor), the film is a disarmingly entertaining piece of hokum, with just enough contemporary resonance and sting. (pp. 48-9)
Moira Walsh, "More Brief Takes," in America (© America Press, 1971; all rights reserved),...
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Humphrey Bogart is alive and well and living in Harlem. His skin is black, but he lives with it. His private eye affairs are still more quixotic than lucrative. His lip still curls when the police chief threatens to withdraw his licence unless he cooperates. Laconic, sardonic, and only just on the right side of the law, he is now called John Shaft….
Dark alleys and red herrings, exotic sirens and prowling gunmen, sinister encounters and strange alliances, all the familiar icons come tumbling out as engagingly as they used to in the Forties thrillers, freshly minted by being seen through the eyes of a black director. Like Cotton Comes to Harlem, Shaft leaves the racial thing to take care of...
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[Shaft is] quite a lively article—a straight forward, one-to-one transformation of the elements of 'forties' thrillers into contemporary terms. It is in between the action and the constant crackle of hip jargon that there is room for dissatisfaction. Although Parks has revitalised the clichés more thoroughly than many similar attempts—to the extent of a black private eye, Harlem locations, and so on—and has avoided nostalgia for a recreated style, retaining only a few small touches of parody, the new life is never altogether comfortable inside the old body.
Opening high-angle shots of Fun City establish the setting and society in a slickly stereotyped way. For the duration of the...
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John Shaft, private eye, aspires to be a steely black version of Sam Spade but more closely achieves an ironic, dimpled James Bond. Shaft's Big Score … clearly is no "Maltese Falcon" or even a "Goldfinger."… [However, the film is] a rousing and entertaining thriller, better than the original and far superior to all those imitations that Shaft's success has spawned….
The film is directed with style and vigorous pace by Gordon Parks, who celebrates an apparent affection for Hitchcock by appearing in the film (as a croupier in a casino called Mother Clyde's) and by imitating the airplane chase sequence in "North by Northwest" (Parks uses a helicopter). An excellent still photographer, Parks...
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[Shaft's Big Score] is a development rather than an imitation of the earlier film….
To a greater extent than its predecessor, Shaft's Big Score is a film which stands or falls on its elaborate production sequences, notably the lengthy climactic chase at the end of the film…. (p. 55)
[It] is a film of the moment, something in the manner of Bond, lacking the fluctuating mood and style which mark the great gangster and private-eye classics. (p. 56)
Margaret Tarratt, "Reviews: 'Shaft's Big Score'" (© copyright Margaret Tarratt 1972; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 19, No. 1, October, 1972, pp....
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Shaft emerges in [Shaft's Big Score] as a highly lethal and effective weapon of destruction and not much else….
Gordon Parks directed and keeps things moving at great speed to cover up the picture's emptiness. There is a chase sequence at the end which borrows from all the other successful chase sequences with which we've been peppered of late.
Shaft's Big Score's kinetic values are many. That's good because its creative assets are meager. (p. 505)
Hubbell Robinson, "Film Reviews: 'Shaft's Big Score'," in Films in Review (copyright © 1972 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, Inc.), Vol XXIII, No. 8,...
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In the hands of a less responsible filmmaker, Leadbelly's saga might have been just another tale of a poor, downtrodden Sambo butting his head against "The Man"; but it just didn't happen that way, and [in Leadbelly] Parks avoids Black clichés as if they were recruiting slogans for the Ku Klux Klan. (Too bad he didn't also avoid showing the whites in prison-guard assignments as stereotypical potbellied crackers.)…
Not a great movie, but there's more meaning and truth for Blacks here than Mahogany had in one of its lime-green sequined fake fingernails.
Rex Reed, "Movies: 'Leadbelly'," in Vogue (courtesy Vogue; copyright © 1975 by...
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In spite of rich raw material, both factual and fanciful, ["Leadbelly"] falls a little flat. It moves, but never jumps…. Ernest Kinoy's screenplay is only adequate. Director Gordon Parks gets good but not memorable performances from his actors, and though he concentrates on what should be the film's greatest asset, the music, he fails to do it justice…. Visually, the movie is magnificent: Parks and cinematographer Bruce Surtees capture the look and feel of the old rural South. "Leadbelly" doesn't exploit its subject the way "Lady Sings the Blues" exploited Billie Holiday. This movie gets a hold on the legend of Ledbetter; it's too bad that no one involved ever really lets loose. (p. 96)
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It is good to remember the [rough and hard facts of Huddie Ledbetter's life] seeing Leadbelly, because in the movie Huddie has been considerably sanitized.
Thanks in large part to some good period detail by Director Gordon Parks …, Leadbelly at least maintains a degree of dignity and professionalism…. Parks shows a careful eye for small evocative details…. (p. 76)
Leadbelly [who was embarrassed by his rough past] might have found this movie … to his liking, which is part of the problem. The screenplay puts Huddie into situations where he seems to have no choice but to kill. He emerges as a man innocent, put-upon and perennially puzzled by the cruel vicissitudes...
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In Leadbelly, Gordon Parks tries to tell the story of the black singer who spent years of his life on Southern chain gangs in a way that is one part moralizing primer for black children, and one part unpleasant facts transmuted into striking pictures for white coffee-table books. It is calculated … to disturb without upsetting, which means that the protagonist's seamy side must be prettified, and suffering must be represented in artfully staged images, as if it were Washington Crossing the Delaware. There must always be reaction shots of black faces in picturesque groupings, and, whenever possible, misty out-of-focus landscapes or sunsets turning the world into a place inhabited solely by blood...
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[Gordon Parks, Sr.] made a short, Flavio, about a boy in a Brazilian favela, in 1965. It was well received, but it took him more than three years to put together his first feature, The Learning Tree…. Finally Hollywood was ready for its first prominent Black director.
The Learning Tree (1968) based on Parks's own memoirs, is a visually stunning evocation of his childhood in Kansas in the twenties. Because the setting is Midwestern, the story is also rather novel, successfully avoiding the clichés and truisms of growing up Black in the South, or in a Northern ghetto. Yet, Parks's childhood wasn't particularly dramatic—no great traumas—and so Learning Tree is...
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