d. Gordon Parks / USA / 107 mins.
The first crop of films inducted into the National Film Registry are all well-known heavy-hitters: Citizen Kane. Casablanca. The Wizard of Oz. Gone with the Wind. But among the first twenty-five is a truly surprising entry – a small, largely unknown 1969 melodrama called The Learning Tree. It's a film with a backstory that makes it, in many ways, just as groundbreaking as its fellow inductees.
By adapting his own memoir for the screen, Gordon Parks became the first African-American director of a major Hollywood studio production. (It is important to note the "Hollywood studio production" aspect of that banner, as there were earlier independent films – as far back as Oscar Micheaux's 1920 film Within Our Gates.) The totality of that cannot be underestimated. The Learning Tree looks at the life of two young black men in the Midwest during the 1920s, a responsible young man named Newt (Kyle Johnson) and a resentful young man named Marcus (Alex Clarke). They are both struggling simultaneously against a racist society and their own burgeoning adulthood, and the story unfolds through both of their perspectives and reaches heights of tension when the two cross paths.
The Learning Tree should not be solely known for being the first film made by a black director. It's a tender tale of rural life, performed by characters who feel real and sincere, and manages to still be entertaining despite some superficial entertainment flaws. The truth is that nearly all the actors are amateurs, which works with the film and against it equally. Unfortunately the acting and dialogue frequently feel quite stilted, which keeps the audience at arm's-length, but the film is not devoid of emotion; the overarching story is particularly engaging, and the closeness of the material to Parks gives the film an unmistakable authenticity. While the acting and story are at times moving, perhaps the best technical aspect of the entire film is its camerawork. Before he became a film director, Parks was a well-known still photographer for Life magazine; he published photos that captured the blemishes of twentieth-century American life – segregation and poverty – and also the empowering social movements of the 1960s. Parks and cinematographer Burnett Guffey (who manned the cameras for In a Lonely Place, From Here to Eternity, and Bonnie and Clyde) present as beautiful a landscape as can be seen in any film from the time period.
Parks was an amazingly productive man. Born into poverty and orphaned at 15, he never graduated high school and taught himself his artistic talents. He worked for the U.S. government during World War II and then joined Life, where he shot photos for more than 20 years. He was the author of multiple books and also poetry and music, and served as editorial director of Essence magazine in the early 1970s. After The Learning Tree, he directed Shaft and its sequel, but did not find himself behind the camera of a well-known film again. He was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in 1988 and died in 2006, and perhaps he will be most remembered for opening the door to other black filmmakers. The Learning Tree has yet to be released on DVD, which is a shame, but fortunately it's being protected for the ages in the Library of Congress. Perhaps this film will someday acquire a larger audience.
28 August 2008
d. Gordon Parks / USA / 107 mins.