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Gordon Parks: Angry Artist Recalls a Life’s Achievement

The Washington Post

Perhaps, Gordon Parks thinks, the dreams that now fracture his nights were born of all those letters and books and pictures. His papers, coveted by libraries in New York, Boston and Kansas, waited in piles around his apartment for days as he sorted through them, and somehow the past seeped out of them and keeps him from sleeping.

“I dream constantly now. It’s every night,” he says. “I don’t like going to sleep now.”

He looks out of the window and to the East River, which rolls and swells and dips 10 floors below.

“Having all my life scattered around this room, things I’ve forgotten, and suddenly someone says, ‘Look at this paper! It’s 1935. Do you remember a letter from your brother?’ That’s pushing me into my past, and as you know"--he smiles--"some of it was not so glowingly happy.”

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He might be remembering growing up, one of 15 kids, poor and black in the Kansas of the ‘20s. Or the violent, early deaths of friends. Insults, casual and deliberate. The Depression. Homelessness in St. Paul, Minn., and New York. Hunger, the fear of starvation. The early days as a photographer chronicling the poor and struggling for the Farm Security Administration.

Those years were followed by success, but not unalloyed. Photographing Black Panthers, Malcolm X and Harlem’s poor as a staff photographer for Life. Writing a novel. Becoming the first black director in Hollywood. Making the movie “Shaft,” a huge success, then realizing that Hollywood was still no place for a black director. Three marriages have come and gone. Nine years ago, his oldest son died in a plane crash.

Parks has spent much of his life presenting that past to the public. “The Learning Tree,” published in 1966 and made into a movie in 1969, was a “novel from life,” the story of his childhood. He later wrote two autobiographies, and his pictures, too, seemed to speak of someone who had lived the events he documented.

He has reached the age--75--when awards and honors accrue, as society bestows its approval on a life. Parks recently received the National Medal of Arts from President Reagan, and he was in Washington for a three-day festival in his honor sponsored by the Institute for the Preservation and Study of African-American Writing.

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His apartment in New York is filled with photographs of family and friends and himself--with Gloria Vanderbilt and Dina Merrill and Cary Grant and Gerald Ford. Two tables are covered with plaques and medals and honors and keys to a variety of cities.

Despite all the pictures taken and words written, as he works on the third volume of his autobiography he sounds like a man beginning an examination of a new subject.

“Before, I just told what happened and let the audience think what they wanted,” he says of his earlier books. “I think this one is different. I’m talking more about what it means to me. It’s more philosophical.”

In the preface of the unfinished book, he writes:

Don’t mistake this for a memoir about dreams. It’s just that grotesque ones have set up a secret life inside me, and as the years slither away I’m beginning to pay more attention to them. . . . Perhaps the anger, held in check for so long, was flashing out violently in the crepuscular zones of my subconscious. If so, why had this psychic havoc waited so long to surface? The childhood crisis bred by racism had long since passed. I thought I had come to grips with that anger through photography, writing, music and films.

For decades, he repeated in conversation and books that “I don’t think anyone’s important enough to occupy me with anger,” a lesson taught by the mother he memorialized in “The Learning Tree.” His autobiographies read like a constant relearning of his mother’s teaching.

But the fury is still there--roaring out in response to the insults of his youth, frozen inside the faces of his subjects, pointing the camera. What is the proper way to react to an outrage? Hide the anger? Explode with it? Transform it? The questions have shaped Parks’ work and life.

“I did suppress a lot of anger,” he says quietly, as if it is a recent discovery.

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One of his most famous pictures is of a black cleaning woman he met soon after arriving in Washington to work for the Farm Security Administration. Her mother died young, her father was killed by a lynch mob, her husband shot to death two days before her daughter was born. When Parks first saw her, she was caring for her dead daughter’s two illegitimate children, one of whom was paralyzed.

In his autobiography, “A Choice of Weapons,” he says he was humiliated that he could not help the woman. He did not like the first picture he took of her, thinking it was unsubtle and over-posed. He spent nearly a month following her, taking pictures.

He was just beginning his photographic career then, but the camera remained for years his way of responding to the humiliation of someone else’s suffering and the power of his own anger.

The living room walls are covered with vibrant photographs, frames filled with abstract bursts of color and light rather than the faces and dramas that made Parks famous. In one sensual picture, the pinks and golds coalesce into a nude woman, black hair piled above her head, reposed geisha-like, face turned from the camera. The earlier, starker photographs hide in books lined up on three shelves holding his work.

“See all those books--I’ve reached a lot of people,” he says. “All these books have something of mine in them, and not just me--Langston Hughes, Jimmy Baldwin, Ralph Ellison. I didn’t have it when I was a kid, a lot of black role models. We didn’t have it in the schools. . . . We couldn’t open a book and see someone we could be proud of.”

It is clearly a point of pride to him that he still receives letters from kids he has touched through his work. Many of them write again and again. “It’s difficult to answer them--they all want personal answers. They send me their pictures, too. I have a little letter I write back to them, but I call each of them by name. I say how they’ve changed, so they’ll realize I do remember them.”

Everything Parks writes is fueled by the self-enforcing faith of a man determined to be a teacher, a model for others. He describes his realizations over the years in the declarative sentences of someone who wants to make sure his point is clear: This disappointment taught me this. This struggle showed me that.

Life’s experiences are not wasted. Suffering can be turned inside out to reveal triumph.

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“His fame didn’t come when he was 25 or 27 years old,” says Joseph Jordan, director of the African-American writing institute. “It’s taken him this long for people to understand and to put together all the various elements of his contributions and just begin to realize he is an institution for us. He has to be an inspiration.”

For people reading “The Learning Tree” and then seeing the movie, the portrait by a black man of a strong, black family, of both blacks and whites doing wrong and being wronged, of a young boy attempting to fight off racism, was something very new. “Shaft,” too, was like nothing before it, creating a new kind of hero for a hungry audience. An action movie about a black private eye pitted against a mobster, it had a title song by Isaac Hayes that won an Academy Award.

Keith Warner, chairman of the department of literature at George Mason University, wrote in a monograph the institute published in conjunction with the Parks symposium: “What was significant was the fact that the black perspective dominated, doing so in a manner that made for box-office appeal. As with any pioneering enterprise, timing is everything, and Parks’ timing with ‘Shaft’ was flawless. Blacks desperately needed to see themselves on screen in roles that were dramatically different from the stereotypes of previous films (though the destruction of one stereotype signaled the creation of another). . . .”

Creating a credible hero had as much to do with seemingly insignificant details as any overriding theme. Ask Parks about what made “Shaft” different, and he says: “Richard Roundtree was the very first black hero to wear a mustache on screen--did you know that? I insisted on it.”

He strokes his own mustache--once debonairly sharp, now luxuriously bushy gray--grinning as if doing something delightfully dangerous. “On the first day of shooting, I saw him walking by with a razor--about to shave it off. I said, ‘Stop! Why are you doing that?’ He said someone had ordered him to get rid of it.

“It was too macho for a black man to have a mustache. It was a very subtle thing. I asked the guy who ordered him to take it off, ‘Why?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ I said, ‘I know. You wouldn’t ask Clark Gable to take his mustache off.’ ”

Eventually, “Shaft” and its sequel “Shaft’s Big Score,” which Parks also directed, would be seen by many as the models on which the “blaxploitation” films of the ‘70s were based. Just what responsibility a director has for his imitators is not something Parks sees as a point for debate.

“ ‘Shaft’ was by no means an exploitation movie,” he responds. “It was a good movie. If James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart had been the star, it wouldn’t have been a white exploitation movie, it would have just been a good film. But when Hollywood saw (Shaft) was such a success, they came up with a lot of fast, bad screenplays. . . .”

If he was disappointed to find little of what he liked in “Shaft” reflected in the films that followed, he doesn’t admit it. Or at least not immediately.

“I didn’t see them,” he says. “It couldn’t pain me. Sure, after you have a tremendous success like this, make millions for the studio, practically save MGM--I did ‘The Super Cops’ with Ron Leibman. It wasn’t particularly the kind of film I wanted to do. They were pushing me towards cops and robbers. They didn’t look at my more sensitive work, they didn’t think, ‘Hey, he did “The Learning Tree,” let’s give him a good project.’

“There’s still a lot of prejudice out there. If it’s a good project, a white director is going to go out and get it . . . buddy knows buddy. . . .” Over the years, he’s seen others make movies that seemed to be perfect for him, and when the subject comes up, the anger--as quiet but as powerful as thunder heard from far away--returns.

“I’m not going to say which picture it was,” he says, his face growing hard, “but the L.A. Times said it should have been Gordon Parks’ picture. . . .”

The reference is hardly impenetrable. Parks did some still photography for Steven Spielberg’s film of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” In her critical review of the movie, Time’s critic Sheila Benson named Parks as “one of the handful of American directors who might have given us the real ‘Color Purple.’ ”

Now he works on his autobiography, his music, a ballet about Martin Luther King, a novel about the British painter J.M.W. Turner. (He never wanted to write or photograph or film only black people, he says; his 1981 novel “Shannon” is about Irish immigrants.) He raises money for the King ballet production, watches the East River and recognizes in its liquid steel water the subject of Turner’s greatest works. Perhaps that book will bring him back to movies--but this time, on his terms.

Parks never graduated from high school. As a child, he played the piano and composed music.

When, during the Depression, he saw what photographs could be, he taught himself the art. When a friend suggested that he write down the stories of his childhood, he became a novelist. He has sculpted, painted and written poetry; lived in Kansas, St. Paul, Harlem, Chicago, Washington, the suburbs of New York, the south of France, Paris and now the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

“I suppose I am restless,” he says. “I have to always be doing something. I like a couple of things going at once, at least to keep me very involved. I suppose I feel I was a late starter, and I missed a lot of things in my early life, and I’ve got to make up for it.


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