IN 1968, 20 YEARS after he was hired as Life’s first African-American staff photographer, Gordon Parks prepared to demolish another color line. “You’re about to become Hollywood’s first black director,” he was told by Kenneth Hyman, the head of production at Warner Bros., during their first meeting. The studio wanted Parks, by then an accomplished writer, documentarian, poet and composer as well as a famous photographer, to adapt his 1963 novel, “The Learning Tree,” for the screen. In addition to directing, he would write the screenplay and the musical score, and serve as producer.
As Parks recalls in his memoir “A Hungry Heart,” published in 2005, the year before his death, Hyman told him, “I can think of only two directors who attempted to do what you are about to do: Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin.” No pressure there. But Parks would set out to make “The Learning Tree” conscious of a burden that Welles and Chaplin, cinematic pioneers though they were, had never faced. He knew that “a multitude of hopeful young black directors would be watching, counting on me to successfully open those closed doors.”
And so he did. “The Learning Tree,” shot in Fort Scott, Kan., in wondrous wide-screen, is a coming-of-age story drawn from Parks’s own prairie childhood, at once gently nostalgic and unflinching in its depiction of 1920s-vintage American racism. (Parks was born in Fort Scott in 1912.) It opened the doors for subsequent waves of black directors to break into Hollywood — including Reginald Hudlin, Robert Townsend, Charles Burnett, Ernest Dickerson and Michael Schultz, all of whom can be numbered among the students of “The Learning Tree,” the creative children of Gordon Parks. (There are many others, including Spike Lee, Julie Dash and Parks’s actual son Gordon Parks Jr., the director of the blaxploitation classic “Superfly,” who died in a plane crash in Kenya in 1979.)
The Parks legacy that flows through their work is less a matter of direct influence than of spirit, ethic and sensibility. “The Learning Tree” is forthrightly political, and also tender, sexy, comical and full of acutely observed and remembered details. You could say the same about Schultz’s “Cooley High” (1975), Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep” (1978), Dickerson’s “Juice” (1992), Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987) and Reginald and Warrington Hudlin’s “House Party” (1990) — all wildly different in method and mood but enlivened by the confident local knowledge and affectionate humanism that Parks brought from his writing and photography into American film.
Like other firsts in African-American history, from Jackie Robinson to Barack Obama, Parks did not come out of nowhere. His breakthrough was, like theirs, both a herald of rapidly changing times and a sign of how belated change can feel — simultaneously a matter of Already? and At last! He was hardly the first black American to wield a movie camera, and “The Learning Tree” was not the first Hollywood production of its time to address the black experience. The late 1960s saw the rise of independent African-American filmmakers like William Greaves and Melvin Van Peebles and the ascendance, in Hollywood, of racially enlightened dramas like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” both released in 1967.
“The Learning Tree” is something else, though: an absolutely personal film, entwined with its creator’s own experiences, that lays authoritative claim to a place in the American mainstream. At Life (and before that at the New Deal-era Farm Security Administration), Parks was known for his intensive, intimate portraits of housing projects, working-class neighborhoods and poor, rural towns, and there was always a risk, given the institutional whiteness of the Time Life Corporation, that those images could be misinterpreted as exotic. But his aesthetic rigor — the beauty and integrity of those images — ensured that Parks was doing more than explaining black life to white America. He was, like his exact contemporary Ralph Ellison (who grew up one state south of Parks, in Oklahoma, and who like Parks eventually went north) committed to the grand midcentury project of explaining America to itself.
The idealism of that enterprise can look bittersweet in retrospect, and by the time Parks turned to moviemaking, it had started to come undone. When it comes to race, Hollywood’s doors have a way of closing suddenly, or leading into half-empty rooms and down long, dim hallways. After “The Learning Tree,” Parks directed four more features: “Shaft” (1971), “Shaft’s Big Score!” (1972), “The Super Cops” (1974) and “Leadbelly” (1976). (He also embedded with the Black Panthers in Oakland, Calif., on assignment for Life and helped found Essence magazine.) Though the critical and commercial fortunes of those movies varied, they represent the kind of work that might have laid the foundation for a long Hollywood career. After “Leadbelly,” an ambitious musical biopic released with minimal promotional support during a change of regime at Paramount (and, in my opinion, one of the great neglected movies of its decade), Parks never directed another studio film.
THE HISTORY OF African-American cinema, like the larger national history it refracts, is a complicated chronicle of progress and retrenchment, pulled backward by long habits of exclusion and condescension, and pushed forward by the grace and tenacity of artists like Parks and his followers. None of his heirs has had an easy path through Hollywood. Some started in relative boom times (the ’70s, the early ’90s) only to face industry indifference when fashions changed. Many moved between the studios and the independent sphere, or between movies and television. To study their filmographies is to admire their resourcefulness, and also to contemplate careers marked by frustration: movies that were meagerly budgeted and poorly marketed, and a great many that simply never got made. Not to mention the masterpieces that were ignored or undervalued in their time — a list that would include, at a minimum, Burnett’s “Nightjohn” (1996, about a slave who learns to read in the pre-Civil War South), Hudlin’s “The Great White Hype” (also 1996, about a boxing promoter’s scheme to make his black fighter more popular) and Schultz’s magisterial “Car Wash” (1976), a day-in-the-life farce set at the Dee-Luxe Car Wash in downtown Los Angeles.
The struggle and the art go together, which isn’t to say that the art is simply an expression or representation of the struggle, even when, as in Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” the struggle is the subject. That movie pokes satirical fun at the American movie industry’s race problems — its appetite for depictions of black servility, criminality and suffering; its indifference to the tastes of some of its most reliable consumers; its soft and hard bigotries — within the context of a story of lower-middle-class striving. For all its flights of whimsy and fantasy, it remains grounded in the realities of work, love and family.
Which is much like “The Learning Tree,” a portrait of the artist (a teenager named Newt Winger, played by Kyle Johnson) as a young man discovering both his own potential and the limits the world places upon it. That is a durable theme of American literature, and also — in a way that is both distinctive and absolutely central — of African-American film. It may not be something Gordon Parks invented, but it is something he bequeathed.