How He Got Ovah
Gordon Parks: In Retrospect
Walker Art Center
HAVING LIVED THROUGH eight full decades of American history, Gordon Parks knows of what he speaks--and of what he writes, photographs, films, and composes. He's authored novels, concertos, and a ballet; he was the first black staff photographer at Life during the '50s and '60s, and the first ever to direct a studio film, The Learning Tree, in 1969.
Certainly, Parks, now 83, has achieved a rare artistic diversity in terms of the number of mediums he's mastered, but also within his movie career alone. Among the seven major films he has directed are an autobiography (The Learning Tree), a period bio-pic (Leadbelly), a documentary self-portrait (Gordon Parks: Visions), and a commercial action movie with white stars (The Super Cops). He also made Shaft and its first sequel, Shaft's Big Score!--which, depending on who you ask, could either be classified as embryonic works of blaxploitation or as old-fashioned detective movies in which the detective just so happens to be black. Parks himself would argue the latter, vehemently. ("Shaft is nowhere near blaxploitation," he says, on the phone from New York.)
Despite their variety, his films are thematically consistent, demonstrated by the fact that this year's Juneteenth Film Festival is devoted entirely to Parks's oeuvre. (The series includes six features, one short, and three hour-long documentaries.) Generally speaking, his subject is the varying means African Americans have used to deal with racism--taking whichever tools were at hand, and often meeting the disapproval of other black folks along the way. The hero of Shaft (1971) rescues a black college girl from the mafia, and in the process condemns her gangster father. In Leadbelly (1976), the jailed title character is deemed a sellout by a fellow black convict for serenading the governor in the hopes of earning a pardon. The film itself, however, equates musical expression with activism; Leadbelly's choice of weapon is his guitar. Similarly, as Parks himself told The New York Times in 1969: "I'm extremely militant--with my camera, with my pen."
For Parks, artmaking is nothing less than a process of survival, a strategy formed early in his life when, after the death of his mother in the late '20s, he left Kansas at age 14 to stay with his sister and her cruel husband in Minneapolis. Among his activities here were playing piano in a bordello and fighting a dog for the meal of a dead pigeon. By the late '30s, he began taking photographs for the Minneapolis Spokesman/St. Paul Recorder, and presided over an exhibit of his work.
"It was rather chilly," Parks says of the climate in Minneapolis, mindful of the double entendre. "Coming from Kansas, I did find the Twin Cities somewhat sophisticated. But I went through a very tough time there. My brother-in-law kicked me out of the house at age 14. In a way, it was good for me. When a 14-year-old is thrown into 35 degrees below zero weather--it gave me another start, let's put it like that." When asked what motivates him to keep working these days (he's currently juggling deadlines on four book projects), Parks answers, "A need to keep alive."
Though the white racist brutality Parks has experienced in his life is never far from the surface of his films, they're likewise permeated by profound intraracial conflict and the tragedy of black-on-black violence: Both Shaft (Richard Roundtree) and The Learning Tree's Newt (Kyle Johnson) climactically get their houses in order by triumphing over violent blacks. In this way, it's not hard to see why Parks dislikes blaxploitation, a genre in which the black antiheroes of these two movies would likely be made into heroes. Conversely, Leadbelly seems his most despairing and radical vision, focused as it is on the apparent inevitability of its character's oppression. But it's also a tribute to resilience--and a bold stylistic rebuttal of the mainstream clout Parks had earned with the Shaft films. Parks's Leadbelly (Roger Mosley) is a justifiably bad-tempered man who narrowly escapes a series of violent situations, mainly by pummeling both whites and blacks in self-defense. Unlike Newt or Shaft, Leadbelly has little interest in assimilating--he even objects to his songs being preserved in the Library of Congress, likening the idea to sticking pins through butterflies. While the movie ends with Leadbelly still in prison, its last words are his empowered assertion that "You ain't broke my spirit."
Parks feels strongly that it's the responsibility of popular movies to point a way out of hardship--an approach that's rare in this age of money-minded nihilism. He keeps up with current cinema on tape, as required by his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but the abundant "lack of sensitivity" in the films bothers him. "The inspiring kind of art--Rachmaninoff as much as Duke Ellington or Debussy or Tolstoy--has helped me in my life, and I wish that African American kids would look at art in that light," Parks says.
"What I tell young black filmmakers is that they must think of universality in their work. People ask me what it was like to direct two white leads in The Super Cops, and I just answer that their color didn't make any difference to me." Not for nothing do three of Parks's films feature admirable (color-)blind characters. "I don't make my poetry or my music just for people in Harlem or Kansas or any one place in between," Parks says. "I think it's about reaching as many kinds of people as you can." CP
Gordon Parks: In Retrospect begins at the Walker on Saturday at 8 p.m. with a dialogue between Parks and scholar Michael Eric Dyson. For information on subsequent screenings in the series, see Film Clips on p. 65, or call the Walker at 375-7622.
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