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The Films of Gordon Parks: The Learning Tree, Leadbelly and Shaft

The Learning Tree
(American, 1969, 107 minutes, color 16 mm)

Kyle Johnson . . . . . . . . . . Newt Winger
Alex Clarke . . . . . . . . . . Marcus Savage
Estelle Evans . . . . . . . . . . Sarah Winger
Dana Elcar . . . . . . . . . . Sheriff Kirky

Note: Gordon Parks will provide film commentary and answer questions immediately following the screening of The Learning Tree.

The verb "to witness" has two distinct meanings in American culture. To many whites, the word brings to mind the clear, objective recitation of events as they have happened, without bias or editorializing, in the manner of testimony given in a courtroom. To African Americans raised in the passionate, dramatic world of the Black Baptist Church, the word also means a deeply personal statement of an inner truth, spoken in a voice that cannot be stilled or shouted down. In THE LEARNING TREE, Gordon Parks witnesses in both ways. His practiced cameraman’s eye frames the flat Kansas plains and its people, both white and non-white, with total, even abrupt, clarity. Yet, THE LEARNING TREE is also testimony of the other kind, the witnessing of a truth so essential that it cannot countenance restraint. Gordon Parks is able to describe the world’s outer surfaces with great accuracy at the same moment he is revealing the inner textures of its protagonists’ hearts. On the screen it is a rare and thrilling combination.

It is Kansas, in the 1920s. There, "Newt Winger" (Kyle Johnson) is learning his own life, learning it one slow, tough lesson at a time. As the film unfolds, it is clear that Gordon Parks has virtually invented the African American family film. THE LEARNING TREE’s distinguished successors are many, from 1972’s SOUNDER to this year’s DOWN IN THE DELTA, and they all point back to THE LEARNING TREE, and the public life of its creator, for no African American filmmaker since Oscar Micheaux in the 1920s has cast such a giant shadow.

Parks wrote the script, the novel the film is based on, and the title song. THE LEARNING TREE was the first feature film by an African American director to be financed by a major Hollywood studio. Parks also produced the film, and directed it. This visually beautiful and moving film was among the first 25 films selected in 1989 for inclusion in the National Film Registry. Not surprisingly, the film was partly autobiographical. Parks was born in Kansas into a large, poor family (he is the youngest of fifteen children) who also worked the land. Parks knew as well how quickly the quiet Kansas land could explode into pain. THE LEARNING TREE turns on a crime transformed into a vehicle for hate. In his youth, Parks had seen more than one killing at the hands of the local sheriff, both the unquestioned authority in Parks’s town and a racist.

But THE LEARNING TREE’s historical setting (Kansas in the 1920s) is deceptive, for the film is a call to order for the 1960s. When the film arrived in 1969, it was a cool wind on the flames of racial frustration that had been raging for five years in the long, hot summers of Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Chicago. Briefly and brashly known as LEARN, BABY, LEARN, THE LEARNING TREE required no punning title to show its viewers that it represented, deep in its soul, a completely different kind of understanding of the African American experience than the pathologies of violence and despair which were then (and still are today) the fodder of television news. In the past, Parks saw the future. It is a future that is at once a Kansas Utopia of strong families, productive work, and honesty—finally and fully—between the races, and a nightmare as red as the burning skies of Detroit, a place where a young man finally must choose between living with himself and living with others, between life and death.

THE LEARNING TREE refuses to name a villain. Instead, the film struggles to make us face the systems of economics and anger that thrive in the warm loam of Kansas. As Parks was to say in 1983 about his award-winning photography, one cannot simply picture an evil man "and say ‘This is a bigot’ because bigots have a way of looking just like everybody else. What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it." For, as Parks has said and as his work as a filmmaker, photographer, musician, novelist and autobiographer has shown, art can truly be "a weapon against evil."

THE LEARNING TREE grows alone, windblown and solitary on the dusty plains. Many of the lessons Newt learns turn on the dismayingly deep capacity of whites to hate African Americans, a capacity more astonishing to Newt because of its self-destructiveness—he watches whites consumed by the very hatred they express, like scorpions killed by their own venom. In a place where the land ordinarily yields a rich bounty, this tree bears a bitter fruit.

(American, 1976, 126 minutes, color, 16 mm)

Roger E. Mosley . . . . . . . . . . Huddie Ledbetter
Paul Benjamin . . . . . . . . . . Wes Ledbetter
Madge Sinclair. . . . . . . . . . Miss Eula
Art Evans . . . . . . . . . . Blind Lemon Jefferson
James E. Brodhead . . . . . . . . . John Lomax

The life of Texas bluesman Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) must have seemed an especially appropriate subject for director Gordon Parks, Sr. Parks’s early years were as nomadic as Ledbetter’s. Busboy, barrelhouse piano player in Minnesota, a professional basketball player—Parks had stored a lifetime of understanding and a country-full of wanderings by the time he began working for the legendary Roy Stryker as a photographer. Stryker led the Farm Securities Administration/Office of War Information photographic units to document the life of average Americans as the Depression wound to a close. But the archetypal life of the American gypsy was not the only thing Ledbetter and Parks had in common. Parks’s photos, like his remarkable suite depicting the days and the life of Ella Watson, a Black Washington, D.C. scrubwoman, are blues compositions of sorts. Like the blues, they reveal an unerring eye for what is human in all human beings. And like the best blues, they use irony to give voice and dignity to the downtrodden.

And like Leadbelly, it has been Parks’s lot not only to bear witness to his own race, but to be a transitive figure in art. Parks’s work for the FSA/OWI and Life magazine helped to bring race issues to the forefront of American public life. Leadbelly was also a pioneer in representing his race to another, and his records and performances would introduce many white Americans to an unadulterated African American musical style, and to the warmhearted, coldhearted, sad, happy world of the blues. That the blues is now universally recognized as the greatest of American folk musical forms is the result of the work of many itinerant bluesmen and women whose names are mostly lost, and to the recorded legacy of a few giants like Huddie Ledbetter.

Born in 1889, Ledbetter migrated to Texas in his twenties, and there he assimilated the Texas blues style, learning his trade from men like "Blind Lemon" Jefferson. The two found African American audiences everywhere, for Texas in the late `Teens and 1920s and early 1930s attracted African American migrants from all over the Deep South. Attracted to Texas oil fields and cotton fields by the promise of a little more money and marginally more freedom than they had known in Mississippi and Alabama, the Texas bluesmen coined a bigger, more expansive blues style on guitar and piano to reflect the greater opportunities that Texas offered. Huddie Ledbetter had an even more intensive blues education, one most musicians would just as soon forego: he spent at least two long stretches in prison and on chain gangs, for murder. Leadbelly’s temper was mercurial, and it is likely that his frequent run-ins with the law were exacerbated by his unwillingness to kowtow to white authority, an attitude both courageous and dangerous. By the end of the 1930s, Leadbelly had become nearly as mythical a figure as that great protagonist of the blues about whom he often sang, the swaggering, sexy, fearless Staggerlee.

What resulted from Leadbelly’s remarkable life was a remarkable career as an American troubadour. Beginning with sides for Columbia in 1935, Leadbelly’s music made him among the first male blues artists to create a "crossover" market among whites who found his music instantly entrancing, eerie, and humane. John Lomax recruited Leadbelly to record for the Library of Congress, and impressario John Hammond featured the singer in his groundbreaking "From Spirituals to Swing" concerts in 1939. In the prewar years, Leadbelly was a regular on the historic "Back Where I Come From" folk radio show, with Woody Guthrie, Burl Ives, and others, and performed at the famously integrated Popular Front nightclub, Cafe Society. Dozens of recordings followed on Asch, Capital, Disc, Columbia again, Folkways, Stinson, Musicraft and Victor. In concert, where he sang songs like "Washington Water Tastes Like Turpentine," Ledbetter was likely to introduce himself memorably: "My name is Leadbelly. I’m the king of the twelve-string guitar. When I come into town, all the girls come running with their skirts up over their heads." During these years, his big, tough, raucous personality etched itself in the minds of other artists. Elia Kazan said of him: "He impressed me. It was a time when all Blacks were not defiant. He was defiant." There were even some hits, like his marvelous "Midnight Special," before his death in 1949, but Leadbelly’s voice would be there in spirit as the folk song revival of the 1960s gathered steam, and new converts who hadn’t known him in life, like Bob Dylan, took down the scratchy old records and played them again and were moved to take up their own guitars and to seek their own voices in the American idiom.

Woody Guthrie’s praise acknowledged the deep linkages between the races that Leadbelly had forged, bonds that proved to be far stronger than the shackles he had worn in the hot Texas sun, years before:

Leadbelly is a regular philosopher of the chain gangs, prisons, wardens and hard times in the country, the country where there’s more of it under corn than under concrete . . . Huddie says, ‘My people has got the blues about everything, about clothes, about money, about places to stay, and places that ain’t worth the rent you got to pay—use to be lots of people had the blues; nowadays everybody’s got the blues, but the white folks blues quits where the Negro blues starts in . . . ’ I’ve never heard the Negro situation said any clearer or easier than that."

(American, 1971, 98 minutes, color, video)

Richard Roundtree . . . . . . . . . . John Shaft
Moses Gunn . . . . . . . . . . Bumpy Jonas
Charles Cioffi. . . . . . . . . . Lt. Vic Androzzi
Christopher St. John . . . . . . . .Ben Buford

SHAFT was a financial bombshell that exploded in the face of the struggling Hollywood film industry. In the wake of lumbering, multi-million dollar flops like TORA TORA TORA! and the traumatic takeover of the old studios by the conglomerates and holding companies, SHAFT introduced the faltering American film industry to its previously-ignored Black audience. The film was made for $1,543,000. It grossed $7,080,000 in domestic rentals. The film’s irresistible theme music was the foundation of a record that virtually invented the modern soundtrack album six years before SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER; SHAFT’s album had sold well over a million units by the time the "Theme from Shaft" won its Academy Award. SHAFT was even optioned by CBS as an idea for a television series, which had a brief run in 1972. In every respect, SHAFT proved that Black Power included economic power as well.

Coming in the wake of Melvin van Peebles’ SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG, which had been released only a few months earlier, and Ossie Davis’ COTTON COMES TO HARLEM of 1970, SHAFT verified what the Black Power movement had implied: that there was a Black audience for popular culture images. SHAFT’s big-studio release (the 12th highest grossing film of the year was a bright spot for troubled MGM) showed the way for other studios, and by 1972, spurred by the success of SUPERFLY, directed by the late Gordon Parks Jr., the Blaxploitation cycle was fully launched. SHAFT was harshly criticized, even mocked, by mainstream critics, and by outraged Black critics who felt that the film put on extravagant display precisely the same qualities of sexual license and irrational anger racists had been assigning Blacks for years. Films such as COFFY, CLEOPATRA JONES, TRUCK TURNER, PETEY WHEATSTRAW, DOLOMITE, SHEBA, BABY and dozens of others followed, but SHAFT was the originator of the first entirely new cinematic genre in a generation.

What prim critics missed in their outrage was that SHAFT owes a great deal to existing genres, and that John Shaft was not only "the first authentic Black superhero" but an emphatically American screen type of long standing, the private eye who refuses to work within the stupid, corrupt institutions of the law enforcement establishment. SHAFT was written by Ernest Tidyman, fresh from his triumph as author of THE FRENCH CONNECTION, to which, with its breathless chase scenes and gritty urban setting, SHAFT is a dark cousin. And, like Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade, John Shaft is a sardonic, ascetic loner, for whom the pursuit of justice is a knightly quest. Gordon Parks’s offhand comment "It’s just a Saturday night fun picture which people go to see because they want to see the Black guy winning," was disingenuous; in fact, SHAFT revealed a Black action hero who was both strong and good, both sexy and honest, and intelligent enough to outwit evil in whatever skin it wore. Gordon Parks has always been fascinated by Black characters whose mere presence insists to the local white power structure on the right of Black self-determination and the fact of Black moral strength and physical courage. Parks’s protagonists cannot be denied, and as whites seek vainly to "understand" (read, "control") these characters, they discover how shaky the psychological foundations of racist superiority really are. John Shaft not only solves a crime; he leaves even his sympathetic white male contacts in law enforcement wondering about their own future atop the social heap. "You’re a wise Caucasian, Vic," Shaft tells "Lieutenant Androzzi" (Charles Cioffi), and it is unlikely that Androzzi will ever think of himself in quite the same way, because of what Shaft has taught about what true mastery of one’s environment looks like.

John Shaft walks the mean streets of Harlem, but, like many other Parks characters, he also lives and works with whites. He has casual sex with a white woman, and is visibly annoyed with the stupidity of some of his white colleagues, preferring to work alone rather be slowed up by their dull-wittedness. John Shaft is at once an utterly American screen hero in the tradition of John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart, a man of integrity, action and passion rather than words and ideas, and he is also utterly disrespectful of 300 years of second-class citizenship. For the vast numbers of white audience members who were mesmerized by this disturbing, expressive image of Black manhood on the screen, Shaft’s "badness" was a goodness they had to recognize and acknowledge.

For additional information, contact the Writers Institute at 518-442-5620 or online at