Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a photographer, musician, writer, and a film director. He spent his early life working as a freelance photographer, eventually landing a job at Life Magazine, where he worked from the ’40s through the late ’60s. He also branched out into music, composing Concerto For Piano and Orchestra (completed in 1953) and Tree Symphony (completed in 1967). He also wrote a few novels, including The Learning Tree, A Choice of Weapons, and To Smile In Autumn. The focus of this appreciation will be on the movies he directed, particularly the good ones. Of the five features he directed, four of them were pretty good: The Learning Tree, Shaft, The Super Cops, and Leadbelly.
Parks made his feature debut by writing, producing, and directing 1969’s The Learning Tree. Based on his own semi-autobiographical novel, this film centers on a young black man growing up in rural Kansas during the late 1920s and early 1930s, a time when racial discrimination was a social norm and still legally sanctioned in some parts of the U.S. Featuring a terrific cast that included Kyle Johnson, Alex Clarke, Estelle Evans, Dana Elcar, and Richard Ward, this critically acclaimed film was the first Hollywood studio film to be directed by a black director and would soon lead to Hollywood making more serious films by black filmmakers (works that would offset the blaxploitation films that arrived in the early ’70s). This film was selected for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989 as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
Parks followed The Learning Tree by directing 1971’s Shaft. Based on the novel by Ernest Tidyman, this film centers on a black private detective named John Shaft who travels through Harlem and to the Italian mob neighborhoods in order to find the missing daughter of a black mobster. Featuring a stellar cast that includes Richard Roundtree, Moses Gunn, Drew Bundini Brown, Charles Cioffi, and Christopher St. John, this critically acclaimed film grossed $13 million on a $500,000 budget, helping to save a struggling MGM from bankruptcy. Isaac Hayes received the film’s two Academy Award nominations for Best Original Score and Best Original Song (Hayes won the latter category for “Theme from Shaft“). Followed by two inferior sequels (the first of which was directed by Parks) and an inferior sequel/remake (Samuel L. Jackson would portray Shaft’s nephew; Roundtree would cameo as the original Shaft).
Parks’ fourth directorial outing was 1974’s The Super Cops. Based on the book The Super Cops: The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin by L.H. Whittemore, the film centers on two rookie NY policemen who enrage their captain because they want to do more than traffic control. They’re sent to Brooklyn as punishment, however, they soon start developing their own methods to combat drug dealers, criminals, and corrupt cops. Featuring a cast that includes Ron Leibman, David Selby, Sheila Frazier, Pat Hingle, Dan Frazer, and Joseph Sirola, this critically acclaimed film also featured David Greenberg and Robert Hantz, the real-life policemen on whom the book and the film were based on (they also served as technical advisors).
Parks’ directorial follow-up to The Super Cops was 1976’s Leadbelly. This film centers on the life of folk singer Huddie William Ledbetter (aka “Lead Belly”), particularly his youth in the segregated South (which included his time in prison and his efforts to use his music to gain release). Featuring a terrific cast that includes Roger E. Mosley, Paul Benjamin, Madge Sinclair, Alan Manson, Albert Hall, Art Evans, James Brodhead, and John Henry Faulk, this critically acclaimed film marked Parks’ final directorial outing as well as being one of the finest (if not under-appreciated) biopics of a musician ever put on film.
[Trivia: Gordon Parks’ son, Gordon Parks Jr. (who was killed in a plane crash in Kenya in 1979), directed four feature films (the only good one being 1972’s Super Fly, featuring Ron O’Neal and Sheila Frazier).]
Gordon Parks may not have contributed a lot of films to the history of cinema, but he is an important figure in the history of black cinema. 1969’s The Learning Tree made him Hollywood’s first major black director, and 1971’s Shaft would kick off the blaxploitation era in Hollywood (an era that died with the release of 1978’s The Wiz). I thank Mr. Parks for his contributions, and I wish that he had made more films (even if they were adaptations of his own novels). May he continue to rest in peace.