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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.)
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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.
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[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.∗
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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.
With every reason in the world to lash out at the world, the younger Parks moves through it cleverly, carefully, while the older Parks recalls it as a world in which whites had no exclusive claim on vice and blacks had no exclusive claim on virtue…. "The Learning Tree" is an astoundingly even-tempered piece of autobiography, given the melodramatic violence of its author's youth. It is also an uneven piece of film craftsmanship….
In a few minor roles and scenes … the performances are tentative and Parks's direction is sloppy or distracted. Surprisingly enough for a photographer of Parks's achievements, he relies heavily on dialogue where pictures alone would have turned the trick.
Apart from the sumptuous photography, "The Learning Tree" has little of the gloss and velocity we've come to expect from fashionably modern movies. At times it turns downright clumsy. I don't know what else to say about the clumsiness except that it's there and that it doesn't matter very much in the end. What matters most is the abiding presence of a good man telling a good story about a boy who was himself, a boy who remains alive, kicking and growing long after the movie ends.
Joseph Morgenstern, "Boy's Life," in Newsweek (copyright 1969 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXIV, No. 6, August 11, 1969, p. 74.
[There] are many images of startling beauty in Parks' film, like the dappled summer light shining through the trees on a country lane. The Learning Tree's major problem is not with pictures but with people.
Adapting his own 1963 autobiographical novel about growing up as a black boy in the Kansas of the 1920s. Parks recollects the characters of his childhood as the sort of stereotypes that usually appear in elementary-school brotherhood pageants….
The original novel was a reminiscence. Not a protest, a souvenir of a simpler time when a quiet bitterness was as good as a riot and the most drastic sort of racial demonstration was trying to buy a Coke at the drugstore soda fountain. Parks is not yet sufficiently sophisticated as a dramatist to make such an unquestioning life completely credible to a contemporary audience….
Parks' meticulous photographic direction … only seems to underscore all [the] melodramatics, lending every character and scene an extra edge of unreality. His shimmering imagery creates a world of benign memory but imperfect drama, in which black is just too beautiful.
"Where Black Is Too Beautiful," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1969), Vol. 94, No. 9, August 29, 1969, p. 65.
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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.∗
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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), Vol. 125, No. 2, July 24, 1971, pp. 48-9.
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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 itself in some edgy observation, and lets in a welcome breath of fresh air by having its black characters behave like people rather than walking advertisements for Black Power or Liberal Conscience. The result is as wittily enjoyable as Ossie Davis's film and much more stylish.
It is perhaps a pity that Gordon Parks' first film, The Learning Tree, has yet to be released in Britain, since Shaft is so unpretentious that the excellence of his direction is likely to go unnoticed. Not that The Learning Tree is a masterpiece: its nostalgic recollection of a Southern childhood is a shade too bitter-sweet, too Carson McCullers-ish, for absolute comfort. But it reveals a sensitivity to actors and settings which is confirmed, less obviously, by Shaft.
Tom Milne, "'Shaft'," in Focus on Film (© 1971 The Tantivy Press, London, Great Britain), October, 1971, p. 7.
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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 credits Shaft moves through these streets; his position as a self-elected rather than socially segregated outsider is noted before the sequence ends with a joke that anticipates all the subsequent ironies about the obvious, and not so obvious, conflicts of race and personality…. Shaft's encounters with the policeman, Androzzi, and with other negroes of different persuasions than his own, the hoodlum, Bumpy Jonas, the young militant, Ben Buford, support the view of Shaft as a solitary and aggressively non-aligned individual. They relate him, in one direction, to the tradition of private dicks with a chip on the shoulder, cynical about people and resentful of society, and in another, to a ghetto view of personal relationships as almost continual warfare, a tough, flip way with both friend and foe, that Shaft practises to perfection and which the film seems to use as an indication of his maturity, as opposed to the sullen, boyish resentment of the militant, Buford.
There is a less satisfactory meeting of past and present in the way the protagonist actually carries out his profession…. (pp. 52-3)
Away from the areas of battle, the sense of personal relations tends to be trite and awkward (the scene in which Shaft takes the runaway Buford to stay with a comfortable, middle-class acquaintance of his, and Shaft's relations with all his women), and in his generally well disciplined direction, Parks occasionally over-emphasises the mock-Chandler wisecracks and punch-lines. But despite the few elements that make for confusion, Shaft succeeds well enough within its own terms, given a ruthlessly dynamic hero and some splendidly engineered action. (p. 53)
Richard Combs, "'Shaft'" (© copyright Richard Combs 1972; reprinted with permission), in Films and Filming, Vol. 18, No. 7, April, 1972, pp. 52-3.
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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 sometimes indulges his fondness for the camera—one lyrically filmed seduction scene would seem more appropriate as a mouthwash ad.
Arthur Cooper, "Black Eye," in Newsweek (copyright 1972 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXX, No. 3, July 17, 1972, p. 78.
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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. 55-6.
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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, October, 1972, pp. 504-05.
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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 The Condé Nast Publications Inc.), Vol. 166, No. 1, January, 1976, p. 33.
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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)
Katrine Ames, "Black Legend," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. LXXXVII, No. 16, April 19, 1976, pp. 95-6.
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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 of life, who would just like to get on with his singin' and his ramblin'….
The violence, the bitterness and the reckless sensuality that make Leadbelly's music great can hardly be seen here for all the laundering…. The songs sound the way the whole movie feels: smooth, eager to please, defused. (p. 78)
Jay Cocks, "Cinema: 'Leadbelly'," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1976), Vol. 107, No. 22, May 24, 1976, pp. 76, 78.
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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 oranges. I admire Parks's purpose and his fight to get the film made and exhibited, but I can react to the actual movie only with polite uninvolvement.
John Simon, "Head Ache," in New York Magazine (copyright © 1976 by News Group Publications, Inc.; reprinted with the permission of New York Magazine), Vol. 9, No. 24, June 14, 1976, p. 66.∗
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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 rather static, a fact which would have caused no problems if the film had been European, but which did not do much for his reputation as a bankable director in late-sixties Hollywood.
The emphasis in the moving-picture industry had always been on "moving" rather than "picture," and Parks's superb training as a still photographer wasn't of much use to him commercially in 1968, when Hollywood was just learning, through the use of new filmstock and techniques, that movies didn't have to be breathlessly paced to be attractive; that audiences would buy the "picture," too.
So Parks set out to show he could do "movies." The proof, Shaft (1971), was irrefutable. Cotton Comes to Harlem had introduced the form of Blaxploitation action films; Shaft added the all-important tone. The film was tough, lean, cool, hip, angry, and in the end even wise. Black audiences understood immediately that Richard Roundtree's heroic exploits as private eye John Shaft were a commentary on decades of white detective films as well as being entertaining in themselves. Most important: at last there was a real Black hero on the screen. Parks did one sequel, Shaft's Big Score, in 1972 …, and a more general urban cop film, The Supercops (1974), unusual in being one of extremely few non-Black films directed by a Black. Parks refused to be ghettoized as a filmmaker, just as he had refused to be ghettoized as a Life photographer.
Having paid his dues to the commercial film establishment, Parks was finally able to return to a more personal project. (pp. 196-97)
[Leadbelly is] a magnificent telling of an historical episode with strong mythic overtones. Leadbelly was just the sort of film Parks was meant to make. His experiences as photographer, musician, and novelist combine to create a film that works well on all three levels.
Like most mythic stories, this biography of Huddie Ledbetter—"Leadbelly"—the master of the twelve-string guitar, potentially verges on cliché. It takes someone of Parks's particular talents to avoid those pitfalls. He does so by confronting the mythic material head-on rather than apologizing for it. The film has a classic narrative structure: strong, simple, direct, and pointed. In short, it's very much like Leadbelly's own music.
It's grounded in humiliation. (Texas Governor Pat Neff comments after Leadbelly has performed for him: "Ain't nothin' can sing like a darkie when he puts his mind to it!") It opposes that oppression with the elemental politics of survival. (Dicklikker, Leadbelly's prison buddy, explains: "Ya suit yerself to the situation. When they wants to kill ya, just livin' is winning.") Ultimately, Leadbelly is a triumph of will…. Leadbelly provides a legitimate historical high of the sort we seldom get any longer from mainstream American movies, made by people who have lost (or never had) a sense of the vitality and meaning of the politics of existence.
Parks can bring it off because, first, he understands the strength of Leadbelly's music. He has also guided [the actors] … to an extraordinary level of performance. Along with his cinematographer, Bruce Surtees, he has in addition created a breathtakingly elemental imagery for the film—full of earth, air, sun, sweat, and color—that's almost insolent it is so powerful.
Most important, perhaps, is the groundbase of the film. What gave Leadbelly's songs their special power was the people whose stories they told. The same must be said for Parks's film. He made a movie about people, and the people give Leadbelly its mythic energy. (pp. 198-99)
James Monaco, "The Black Film (and the Black Image)," in his American Film Now: The People, the Power, the Money, the Movies (copyright © 1979 by James Monaco; reprinted by arrangement with The New American Library, Inc., New York, New York), The New American Library, New York, 1979, pp. 185-214.∗
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