A ‘Black Director’ or Simply an Artist? : Gordon Parks Fueled the Dreams of Young Black Filmmakers With ‘The Learning Tree’ in 1969; He’s Not Sure Those Dreams Have Come True


Hollywood was quite a closed place 22 years ago, when Gordon Parks became one of the film industry’s first black directors.

Parks let out a big laugh from beneath his white walrus mustache.

“Closed? . . . It still is.”

Parks reflected for a moment, then added: “I think Hollywood has loosened up somewhat, but it’s still difficult. You’re still considered more or less a ‘black director.’ You should be considered as an artist.”


But, Parks said, “I think Hollywood has not reached that point. And may not.”

Parks was aided first by actor John Cassavetes, who urged him to turn his early autobiography, “The Learning Tree” into a motion picture. Cassavetes felt equally strongly that Parks, famed as a photographer for Life and Vogue, should direct it.

So with help from Cassavetes, Parks found himself sitting opposite Kenneth Hyman, who ran the Warner Bros. Seven Arts Studio. To Parks’ amazement, Hyman’s first question was, “How long will it take you to get out here and start production?”

While Parks wondered if he were experiencing a reality lapse, Hyman enlisted Parks as director, screenwriter, composer and--because “you’re going to need some clout”--executive producer.

In a single half-hour meeting, Parks said, “Kenny Hyman broke down all the barriers that had existed out there forever.” Parks paid him back. In September, 1989, “The Learning Tree” was among the first 25 films chosen by the Library of Congress to be among those included in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant” and worthy of preservation. HBO will show the film Friday at 4:30 p.m.

Parks went on to make “Shaft,” “Shaft’s Big Score,” “The Super Cops,” “Leadbelly” and a number of documentaries. It was Jim Aubrey at MGM who brought Parks over to make “Shaft.” Along with Hyman and later, Frank Yablans, Aubrey became one of Parks’ major supporters in Hollywood.

“They are a different breed,” Parks said of the Hyman-Yablans-Aubrey troika. “They’re not there anymore.” Yablans had hired Parks to direct “Leadbelly,” a film based on the life of the folk singer Huddie Ledbetter. It was ready to be screened just as Yablans fell prey to that peculiar institution of Hollywood, the lockout. He came back from lunch and found that the locks on his door had been changed. Parks writes that the new studio head, Barry Diller, complimented “Leadbelly” generously when he viewed it with Parks. Later, Parks wrote in his updated autobiography, “Voices in the Mirror,” Diller went back to his office and announced to an underling: “Kill it.”

The film did not die completely but received little publicity from the studio and was sent on an abbreviated tour that included a stop in a San Francisco porno palace.

Still, Parks said: “The very fact that Kenny Hyman used me to open up Hollywood made it a lot easier for others at least to dream.”

Other young black directors, “could think, at least, it’s possible,” Parks said.

Blacks and other minorities may not have it easy in Hollywood, Parks said, “but I don’t put a pall on the place. I think one must always be optimistic.

“There are still some liberal-minded producers hanging around out there,” he said.

Talking to Parks is a little like getting a living history lesson. His biography claims he is nearly 78, but this seems impossible. He is trim and active, with only his snowy mustache to attest to the years.

Parks is the son of a Kansas tenant farmer and his patient, loving wife. Segregation and racism ran strong through the Parks’ family life. His parents and several other siblings are buried today in a segregated cemetery.

He worked as a janitor in a Chicago flophouse and played the piano in a brothel to help pay for his photographic studies. He never was graduated from high school but has been awarded 24 honorary university degrees. He traveled the world for Life and Vogue, the first black photographer for either periodical. He covered high society and high fashion, but he also covered poverty around the world. Parks became both a writer and a photographer for Life, penning a farewell to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that shouted the author’s lifelong hatred of racism.

“At the time you’re doing it, it doesn’t seem that extraordinary,” Parks said of his life and career. “But it creeps up on you. You realize, yeah, I did cover some ground.”

For Parks, Hollywood was inevitable. After all, as a photographer, “your photographing skills you would like to see in movement. I think every photographer wants to do film.”

Parks covets the idea of doing another film in Hollywood. But it would have to be the “right film,” because “I don’t want to do a film just to make a film.”

One possibility is his present literary project. Between writing “Voices in the Mirror” (Doubleday), drafting an original screenplay and composing a sonata for his four children, Parks has been working on a novel about the life of British painter J. M. W. Turner. It is about two-thirds completed, Parks said, and is begging to be adapted to the screen.

If Parks were to direct a movie about Turner, he would slash yet another barrier, because under no circumstances could that be considered a black movie.

Parks smiled. “My dear,” he said, “I don’t think there’s a black person in it.”