Gordon Parks, Renaissance Man in Racist America

BAMPFA retrospective captures the essence of his groundbreaking career.


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Gordon Parks’ seminal film The Learning Tree and others screen this month in a Parks retrospective.

Courtesy BAMPFA

The youngest of 15 children, Gordon Parks worked his way out of rural Fort Scott, Kan., to the top of the illustrious heap of Life magazine photojournalists. He had a gift for words as well as images, penning the young adult novel The Learning Tree, several books of poetry, and three volumes of autobiography. In 1969, Parks became the first African American to make a studio feature when Warner Bros. gave him (barely) enough money to write and direct The Learning Tree (screening Nov. 17).

That film is included in the National Film Registry (the National Film Preservation Board’s list of significant American movies), along with Parks’ gritty urban follow-up, Shaft (screening Nov. 19). Both are included in the pithy BAMPFA retrospective A Choice of Weapons: The Films of Gordon Parks, which takes its title from one of the gifted artist’s memoirs. The commercial success of Shaft, which showcased Isaac Hayes’ irresistible, Academy-Award-winning theme song about “the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks” and a seedy Times Square milieu that no longer exists, spawned the blaxploitation genre. The opening program in the series, though, best captures the depth of Parks’ soul, passion, and purpose: A pair of short, black-and-white 1960s portraits of poverty inspired by his Life photo-essays, Flavio and Diary of a Harlem Family, lead into Moments Without Proper Names (screening Nov. 3), Parks’ career-capping self-portrait (also shot in evocative black and white) that weaves together his poetry, photographs, and original score (yes, he was a composer, too). The film series is programmed in conjunction with Gordon Parks: The Making of an Argument, an exhibition of the photographs he took in Harlem in 1948 for his first major Life assignment. Parks’ lifelong theme was growing up black in America, and it was rarely a pretty picture.

A Choice of Weapons: The Films of Gordon Parks, Nov. 3-Dec. 1, BAMPFA, 2155 Center St., Berkeley, 510-642-0808, BAMPFA.org. 

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