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Gordon Parks Sr. & Jr.
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suppliedTitle,The Learning Tree

The Learning Tree

Director, author, poet, composer, photojournalist - Gordon Parks would earn a prominent place in American culture even if he hadn't become the first African-American to direct mainstream studio films. A true Renaissance man, Parks came to filmmaking relatively late in life at the age of 57. Today he's best known as the director of the box office hit Shaft (1971), a classic of the urban, street-smart "blaxploitation" genre. But his film career began two years earlier with The Learning Tree, based on his semi-autobiographical novel of life in a small Kansas town in the 1920s. Parks' sensitive handling of this story of a young man's rite of passage marked a turning point in the cinematic depiction of the African-American experience in America and kicked off a spate of black-themed films that depicted characters and life experiences rarely chronicled in mainstream American cinema.

Parks brought a lot of his own experiences into the story of Newt Winger, a boy who learns the hard lessons of first love (and sex), witnesses a murder, and faces the bitter humiliation of racial discrimination before gaining the strength and wisdom to move on to a brighter future. Like his central character, Parks was born in 1912, the youngest child of a large family of poor dirt-farmers, in Fort Scott, Kansas, where much of the film was shot. Leaving behind his rural routes, the adventurous young man became in succession - a busboy in Chicago, a piano player in a Minnesota brothel, a drug runner in Harlem and a professional basketball player before settling into a remarkable career as a photojournalist, first for the U.S. government and most notably at Life magazine. From the 1940s into the 1960s, Parks mastered the still camera - what he later called his "choice of weapons" - to document the lives of America's poor. In The Learning Tree, however, he stuck to the details of his early years, evoking the essence of black life, from church services to outdoor barbecues, and the strong sense of family and community that gave him the foundation for his later success.

Although he came to the project with a considerable reputation as an accomplished artist, Parks had to deal with the expected resistance to a black director helming a studio-financed film. One producer offered him major funding if he would change all the black characters to white, and another suggested silent film diva Gloria Swanson for the part of Newt's mother. But Parks had a great ally in director-actor John Cassavetes, who introduced him to gutsy Warner Brothers producer Kenny Hyman. Not only did Hyman agree to let him direct, in quick succession Parks found himself assigned to writing the screenplay, producing the film and Ð after Hyman heard him play a song he had written on the piano - composing the score. Only a handful of filmmakers had been given such sweeping control; Chaplin and Welles are among the few that come to mind.
Many critics praised the film at the time of its release for its breathtaking cinematography (by Burnett Guffey) and evocative sense of time and place. But others found it somewhat old-fashioned, even "corny." Remember, this was 1969, at the height of a rebellious and stormy new period in American history and culture. Young audiences, in particular, were not likely to embrace the kind of sentiments that had been the stock-in-trade of successful directors from a generation earlier, people like John Ford and Frank Capra. But The Learning Tree -- part of a tradition of coming-of-age movies stretching back at least as far as Ford's How Green Was My Valley (1941) - has held up over the years. And in 1989 it was one of the first 25 films selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry for all time.

Director: Gordon Parks
Producer: Jimmy Lydon, Gordon Parks
Screenplay: Gordon Parks
Cinematography: Burnett Guffey
Art Direction: Edward Engoron
Music: Gordon Parks
Cast: Kyle Johnson (Newt Winger), Estelle Evans (Sarah Winger), Felix P. Nelson (Jack Winger), Carol Lamond (Big Mabel), Joel Fluellen (Uncle Rob), Alex Clarke (Marcus)
C-108m. Letterboxed.

By Rob Nixon
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