The Learning Tree


1h 47m 1969
The Learning Tree

Brief Synopsis

A black boy growing up in Kansas dreams of a better life in this film version of director Gordon Parks's autobiography.

Film Details

Also Known As
Learn, Baby
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Period
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 6 Aug 1969
Production Company
Winger Enterprises
Distribution Company
Warner Bros.--Seven Arts, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks (New York, 1963).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 47m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Synopsis

Newt Winger, a sensitive teenaged Negro boy, lives in a small Kansas town in the mid-1920's; his mother, Sarah, is a domestic for the local circuit judge, and his father works for Jake Kiner, a kindly white rancher. When Newt is injured in a tornado, he is rescued and initiated into sex by Big Mabel, the local whore. Later, while swimming with friends, including the embittered Marcus Savage, he is forced to dive for the corpse of a frightened Negro gambler whom the bigoted Sheriff Kirky had shot in the back. After Marcus is sent to jail for brutally beating Kiner, Newt turns his attention to Arcella Johnson, a new girl in town, but he is heartbroken when her family moves away because she has become pregnant by Judge Cavanaugh's white playboy son. Soon after, while working for Mr. Kiner, Newt sees Marcus' father, Booker, and a white man, Silas Newhall, attempting to rob the rancher's liquor supply. When they are discovered and attacked by Kiner, Booker kills Kiner and flees, leaving behind the unconscious Silas. As a result, Silas is placed on trial for murder, and Newt hesitates to reveal what he knows, fearing that the white community will rise up against the blacks. Eventually, however, Newt decides to tell the truth, and Booker shoots himself upon hearing the news. By this time, Marcus is out of jail, and sets out to kill Newt, who is attending his mother's funeral. The confrontation leads to a fight, which Newt wins; he lets Marcus escape before Sheriff Kirky arrives, but Kirky follows Marcus into the woods and shoots him in the back. Newt, sickened by the hatred and violence, decides to go elsewhere to live with his aunt.

Photo Collections

The Learning Tree - Movie Poster
The Learning Tree - Movie Poster

Videos

Movie Clip

Hosted Intro

Film Details

Also Known As
Learn, Baby
MPAA Rating
Genre
Drama
Period
Adaptation
Release Date
Jan 1969
Premiere Information
New York opening: 6 Aug 1969
Production Company
Winger Enterprises
Distribution Company
Warner Bros.--Seven Arts, Inc.
Country
United States
Screenplay Information
Based on the novel The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks (New York, 1963).

Technical Specs

Duration
1h 47m
Sound
Mono
Color
Color (Technicolor)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio
2.35 : 1

Articles

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
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

The Learning Tree


Already hailed as an African-American pioneer for being the first black photographer on the staff of Life magazine, Gordon Parks channeled his tragic childhood into his semi-autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, published in 1963. Five years later, Parks was still reeling from the April 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. when he received a telephone call from actor turned filmmaker John Cassavetes. "Gordon, just finished reading your novel... It's got to be made into a motion picture and you have to direct it!" Serving as a conduit to Warner Brothers head of production Kenneth Hyman, Cassavetes made it possible for Parks to become Hollywood's first black film director. Taking on the task of directing The Learning Tree (1969) from his own script, while also serving as producer and composing the score, Parks coaxed Bonnie and Clyde cinematographer Burnett Guffey out of retirement for the project and cast juvenile actor Kyle Johnson (son of Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols) in the pivotal role of his childhood surrogate, Newt Winter. The film's depiction of race relations in the interregnum between world wars spoke to Vietnam era moviegoers, making the film a hit for Warner Brothers and paving the way for Parks to helm Shaft (1971), which inaugurated the "Blaxploitation" film movement. In 1989, The Learning Tree was one twenty films inducted by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.

By Richard Harland Smith

The Learning Tree

Already hailed as an African-American pioneer for being the first black photographer on the staff of Life magazine, Gordon Parks channeled his tragic childhood into his semi-autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree, published in 1963. Five years later, Parks was still reeling from the April 1968 assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. when he received a telephone call from actor turned filmmaker John Cassavetes. "Gordon, just finished reading your novel... It's got to be made into a motion picture and you have to direct it!" Serving as a conduit to Warner Brothers head of production Kenneth Hyman, Cassavetes made it possible for Parks to become Hollywood's first black film director. Taking on the task of directing The Learning Tree (1969) from his own script, while also serving as producer and composing the score, Parks coaxed Bonnie and Clyde cinematographer Burnett Guffey out of retirement for the project and cast juvenile actor Kyle Johnson (son of Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols) in the pivotal role of his childhood surrogate, Newt Winter. The film's depiction of race relations in the interregnum between world wars spoke to Vietnam era moviegoers, making the film a hit for Warner Brothers and paving the way for Parks to helm Shaft (1971), which inaugurated the "Blaxploitation" film movement. In 1989, The Learning Tree was one twenty films inducted by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance. By Richard Harland Smith

Quotes

Trivia

The first major studio feature film directed by an African-American (Gordon Parks).

Notes

The working title of this film was Learn, Baby, Learn. According to contemporary sources, the picture was filmed on location in and around Fort Scott, KS.
       The Learning Tree marked the feature-film debut of director-writer Gordon Parks (30 November 1912-7 March 2006), a pioneering filmmaker who was the first African-American still photographer for Life magazine. Parks was also a well-respected composer, artist and author. His next film as a director, 1971's Shaft (see below), is widely regarded as one of the first examples of the Blaxploitation genre. In 1989, The Learning Tree was one of the first twenty-five films selected for inclusion in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.

Miscellaneous Notes

Released in United States Fall September 1969

Feature directorial debut for acclaimed photographer Gordon Parks.

Selected in 1989 for inclusion in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Released in United States Fall September 1969