Film: Very Good
Transfer: Very Good
Label: Warner Archives
Released: March 16, 2011
Synopsis: An African-American teen growning up in 1920s Kansas experiences love, hardship and tragedy.
Special Features: (none)
After progressing from fashion photographer for Vogue to Life photo journalist, Gordon Parks made the natural leap to novelist, penning The Learning Tree in 1964, which eventually caught the attention of Warner Bros., and in 1969 Parks became the first African-American to direct a feature for a major studio.
Hollywood had produced and released several topical dramas that touched upon racial divisions in America – To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) and In the Heat of the Night (1967) remain high points – but none were penned nor directed nor produced nor scored by an African-American. Parks was a self-made artist driven by passion and a rich personal history filled with joys and horrors, much of which he chronicled in his slim but moving 1990 autobiography, Voices in the Mirror.
Tree preceded that work, and what’s surprising is how his first feature film has a traditional if not play-like structure in which characters are introduced, conflicts seeded, foes and simmering divisions established, and two boys living vastly different experiences in a white-dominated town ultimately collide with tragic consequences.
Parks’ dialogue varies from potent to clichéd, and the performances by the cast of veterans and newcomers vary in strength, but there’s a richness and freshness to this almost classically constructed moral tale, shot on location, and during a period when an eloquently produced drama on racial divide and inequalities packed with harsh images and language might have made it a tough sell to most markets.
The story isn’t wholly unique – Newt (Kyle Johnson) grows into his own as a mature teen, eschews reckless shenanigans with his pals, studies hard, learns lessons in love, and becomes a determined young man with a goal to transcend the grim expectations of white peers – but Parks quickly establishes a township in which the existing divisions aren’t exactly stark, but nevertheless run very deep.
It’s a world where superficially things look fine, but there are discrete, unofficial rules that have to be observed, distances must be kept, and levels of inferred and expressed ire are expressed at the right time with the right people. When Newt realizes the same-aged kid of the privileged white family for whom his mother cleans house has an interest in his girlfriend Arcella (Mira Waters), his defensive maneuvers are limited; and when she becomes pregnant after a dangerous affair, her entire family pulls out of town.
Newt’s own social position is stable because of his tight and respectful family, and the young punk with whom he and several pals hung around last summer becomes an unwanted nemesis, especially when a term in a juvenile programme makes Marcus (Alex Clarke) only more bitter and seeds a deeper loathing of his father, (Richard Ward) who never bothered to visit him. In what’s perhaps the film’s most powerful scene, a priest visits Marcus in his filthy jail cell around Christmas, and the sheer hopelessness of his circumstances are vented as he grips the steel bars and uses the N-word like a battering ram, telling the priest as soon as he’s gone, the jailer will beat the shit out of him as he does every day.
Where Newt has the support of family, friends, and a teacher trying within his slim wiggle room to help African-American kids, Marcus comes home to an indifferent father, takes a job cleaning the environs of a whorehouse (whose owner is played by jazz great Jimmy Rushing!), and eventually sees his world crash when his father’s fingered by Newt for the brutal murder of a white farmer.
There’s a sense Parks appreciated the humanism within Harper Lee’s Mockingbird story, but felt it too clean, too neat, and perhaps dated too soon for the viciousness that transpired during the mid-1960s. The tale of a killing and court case needed a backstory told through a coarser filter, using the language and frank hatred that kept his characters always on edge. That starkness is evident in the relationship between the town cop Kirky (Dana Elcar) and anyone who’s black and on the run: twice he shoots men in the back, as cop, judge, executioner, and as an economical solution to save the town court fees for an unnecessary trial.
The language among Kirky and his kindred includes a variety of racial slurs which roll out with dry humour and a confidence that’s absent in both Mockingbird and Heat, and perhaps characterizes the insidious normalcy of using slurs as accepted argot which differed between towns, regions, and large urban centres.
It’s strange that the aforementioned films are often cited as definitive anti-racist statements and modern cinema classics, while Parks’ film has been largely forgotten. Warner Bros. had significant faith in Parks that the music – a mix of orchestral score and a few jazz source cues – was released on LP, but perhaps the film’s production was a savvy attempt by the studio to produce their own Heat, cashing in on the social commentary drama, but unlike the other films, abandoning it afterwards and letting it sink into the studio’s deep back catalogue which was licensed to TV and tape releases.
The film’s DVD debut in 2011 as an on-demand DVD-R is a good first move, but this is an older anamorphic transfer that needs a proper upgrade to Blu-ray, especially given the immense care that went into the film’s look, and Burnett Guffey’s extraordinary cinematography. Parks’ visual style is evident in the film – Newt’s post-hurricane seduction scene, nightmares, and the soft palette and pastel colours are similar to the look of Parks Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), albeit with more gloss and visual kineticism.
The prestige of Tree and its success at the box office helped him move on to directing the iconic Shaft (1971), the film that for studios launched the blaxpoiltation wave which they quickly wore out with mediocre productions, and although Parks’ two Shaft films have never really gone out of print on DVD, Tree remains stuck as a bare bones MOD disc, which is just plain wrong.
Parks died in 2006, but it’s never too late for the film to be given the Special Edition treatment, sporting a commentary track that draws from film and African-American scholars and Parks’ autobiography; featurettes with surviving cast & crew, and historians on the films’ importance; a featurette on its music and Parks work in and outside of film as a composer; a stereo isolated score track; the literary importance of his novel and the subsequent stage play; and Parks legacy and stature in film, as conveyed by contemporary African-American filmmakers – screenwriters, directors, producers, cinematographers, composers, and actors.
Why not give The Learning Tree its due instead of relegating it to a pricey MOD with limited distribution?
Gordon Parks’ films as director include the shorts Flavio (1964), The World of Piri Thomas (1968), and Moments Without Proper Names (1987); feature films The Learning Tree (1969), Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), The Super Cops (1974), and Leadbelly (1976); and the American Playhouse episode “Solomon Northrup’s Odyssey” (1984).
His life was also profiled in the HBO documentary Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks (2000).
The filmographies of the three young cast members is fairly modest, with star Kyle Johnson, son of Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols, appearing in Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) and Brother on the Run (1973); Mira Waters in The Greatest (1977) before retiring from feature films; and Alex Clarke similarly appearing on one more feature film, Halls of Anger (1970).
© 2017 Mark R. Hasan