A landmark motion picture, The Learning Tree, premiered in New York City 50 years ago today. Directed by the trailblazing and multi-talented journalist, photographer, and writer, Gordon Parks, it was the first major Hollywood studio film to be directed by an African-American. The movie was based on Parks’s 1963 semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Among the book’s many fans was actor/filmmaker John Cassavettes, who had just co-starred in The Dirty Dozen, a film produced by Kenneth Hyman, who had recently become head of production for Warner Bros.-Seven Arts.
Cassavettes arranged a meeting between Parks and Hyman on the WB-Seven Arts Burbank lot. Just moments after the meeting began, and despite having no filmmaking experience, Parks was hired to direct and write the screenplay for a feature film version of The Learning Tree. Parks recounts the excitement of this moment in his memoir, To Smile in Autumn: “I was dizzy with pleasure, unable to believe what was happening. In less than five minutes, Kenny Hyman had accomplished what everyone, including myself, had thought was impossible: a major Hollywood studio was about to take on its first black director.” A week later, Hyman also asked Parks to compose the soundtrack, and to make sure he would keep control on the set, he made him the film’s producer as well!
The Learning Tree was released to theaters in August 1969 and was well-received by both critics and the public. As a testament to the movie’s importance, it was one of the 25 movies selected to join the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry in its debut year of 1989. Below are some beautiful images from this classic film from the Warner Bros. archives.
Kyle Johnson plays Newt Winger, a surrogate for the young Gordon Parks.
The movie is filled with slice-of-life moments, such as when Newt observes a fire ant mound just before the arrival of a cyclone.
The movie was shot in and around the actual town that the young Gordon Parks grew up in: Fort Scott, Kansas (though it was renamed Cherokee Flats in the film itself). The town and its environs were beautifully photographed by Burnett Guffey, who had just won a Best Cinematography Oscar for his work on Bonnie and Clyde.
Unlike many of his friends, Newt has a loving relationship with his parents, especially his mother. When asking her if he will always live in their small town, his mother replies, “Well, I hope you won’t have to live here all your life. It’s not a all-good place. Not a all bad place, either. Sort of like fruit on a tree. Some good – some bad. Understand? No matter if you go or stay, think o’ Cherokee Flats like that till the day you die. Let it be your learning tree.”
Newt’s fortunes change when he falls for a new arrival to Cherokee Flats, Arcella Jefferson.
Newt and his family celebrate Christmas at their home, where he gives Arcella a necklace.
Jimmy Rushing was a jazz and blues singer and pianist, best known for being the main vocalist of the Count Basie Orchestra in the 1930s and 1940s. He has a small but memorable role in The Learning Tree as the owner of the town brothel.
The black residents of Cherokee Flats are forced to deal with racism, both overt and subtle, on a daily basis. At the beginning of his autobiography Voices in the Mirror, Parks describes his Kansas hometown as “…proud of its posture as part of a free state, while clinging grimly to the ways of the Deep South.” In this scene, the proprietor of the local soda fountain refuses to serve Newt and Arcella, even when they are accompanied by the white son of the town judge.
Director Gordon Parks on the set. At lower left is his son, Gordon Parks Jr., who served as one of the still photographers on the set. The younger Parks would soon become a filmaker in his own right, directing both Superfly and Three the Hard Way.
At the town fair, Newt and his friends are recruited to participate in a bare-knuckled fight for money.
Despite the knowledge that it may inflame racial tensions in the town, and also put himself in danger, Newt’s strong sense of morality urges him to testify in court to save a man falsely accused of murder.
The director-producer-composer-screenwriter of The Learning Tree: the extraordinary Gordon Parks. He would direct four more feature films in the 1970s: the landmark Shaft, its sequel Shaft’s Big Score, The Super Cops, and Leadbelly.