Marking his mastery of the craft and his refusal to allow racial barriers deter him, friends and admirers of Gordon Parks gathered at the Directors Guild of America last week to pay tribute to the 84-year-old director.
Parks directed “The Learning Tree” (1969), “Shaft” (1971) and “Leadbelly” (1976), among others, but the crowd that included Richard Roundtree, John Singleton, Bill Duke and Martha Coolidge also marked his career as one of Life magazine’s pre-eminent photojournalists from 1948-68. Among the subjects he covered: Malcolm X.
It was at age 57 that Parks became the first African-American director of a major studio feature with “The Learning Tree,” based on his autobiographical novel about growing up in Kansas. The picture was selected to be among the first 25 works to enter into the Library of Congress.
“I wanted to be part of something that was meaningful,” said Kyle Johnson, who starred in the picture. “I wanted to be part of something that was uplifting.”
Parks also wrote the screenplay for “Learning Tree,” and he composed the music and produced the pic.
“They left out a couple of things in the credits,” Johnson said. “He also cut my hair.”
“Shaft” has been cited as a blaxploitation pic, but producer Joel Freeman said that it was a “misinterpretation.” ” ‘Shaft’ has and will stand on its own.”
It was Parks who called on Freeman to produce “Shaft.” “I left the pre-production of ‘Dirty Harry’ at Warner Bros., knowing that Sinatra had bowed out,” Freeman said.
With “Leadbelly,” the account of the legendary blues singer, Parks chose Art Evans to play Blind Lemon. “This was 23 years ago and he still looks the same,” Evans said. “I guess you have to buy his video workout tape.”
Parks as music director
And when Evans finished his scenes, Parks had another job lined up for him, as the pic’s musical director. Then he saw what the job was. “The job consisted of making sure one of two tapes were on the set all the time,” Evans said to laughs. Then he quipped” “The responsibility for me to show up on the set with the right tape and the right time was a pressure you could not believe.”
But Parks also managed to transcend the impression that he only made “black films” with pics such as “The Super Cops” (1973).
Director Reginald Hudlin recalled watching the picture in Westwood on a family trip to California.
“We watched this movie all day long,” Hudlin said. “But I did not know Gordon Parks directed ‘Supercops.’ I was just having a good time. And that is what I aspire to today.”
Advice from Parks
In fact, in a Q&A session on his career, a word of advice Parks had for younger African-American filmmakers was that they not limit themselves to so-called “black movies” but all types of stories and classics.
“I can’t tell you how much it warms my heart to see them doing their thing,” Parks said. He added: “I hope that they will do all kinds of films.”
Parks was feted by the Directors Guild of America’s African-American Steering Committee, co-chaired by Ted Lange and Bob Reid.