After a hardscrabble life in the Depression, Gordon Parks picked up a camera instead of a gun. But as a massive retrospective of his work reveals, his sympathies have often remained with those who went the other way.
At the conclusion of the movie Leadbelly, a biopic that Parks directed in 1976, its title character languishes in a Southern jail. Escaped from prison and recaptured, he begins to find himself drained of the wrath that has accompanied him on his often wretched journeys through the South. He's stabbed a white man in a dance hall, and shot a black one; he'll most likely die on the chain gang.
It is at this point that Leadbelly gets a chance to set his songs to tape, as the Lomaxes of the Library of Congress pay a visit to the prison. They record Huddie Ledbetter's autobiography and songs in the warden's office. Then it's back to the dusty yard. Yet in the closing shot, we see a temporarily revivified Leadbelly, gray-haired, broad and bare-chested, breaking rocks in dizzying heat. The camera pans across his chains and moves closer, as Leadbelly raises the pickaxe and begins to swing through. And then the shot freezes. That's the end.
The Minnesota Museum of American Art's retrospective of Gordon Parks's work is on display through May 17. Call 292-4355.