Criterion Review: THE LEARNING TREE, the Feature Debut of Gordon Parks

The Learning Tree, Gordon Parks’ feature debut, is now available on Blu-ray as part of the Criterion Collection. The film was previously available only on MOD DVD from the Warner Archive Collection — meaning no disrespect to the work that Warner Archive does to keep older films in print, that was not the release the film deserved.

Shaft is the Parks film that people know best, and it’s certainly deserving of recognition as an influential film that single-handedly trailblazed a new subgenre. But it’s unfortunate that The Learning Tree isn’t afforded the same recognition — something that this Criterion edition will hopefully help to remedy.

Both artistically and historically significant, The Learning Tree is a towering achievement. An adaptation of his own semi-autobiographical novel, the film was the first major studio film by a black director. Parks, at that time already an accomplished and respected photojournalist and writer, took on the film in multi-hyphenate fashion, adapting the screenplay, composing the music, and acting as a producer in addition to directing.

Though The Learning Tree is filtered though a character named Newt (Kyle Johnson), the protagonist is an avatar for Parks as he remembers his childhood in rural Kansas. (As an aside, this Kansas connection is why I first took an interest in Parks and his work. I grew up in Wichita — about three hours from his childhood home of Fort Scott — where the arts community embraces him as a local icon and filmmaker. Even if he might disagree).

Stylistically, it’s not out of place to compare the film to other rural coming of age tales like Old Yeller or Pollyanna, but there are major differences from the Disney tales — as black boys, Newt and his friends are forced to grow up faster, for their childhoods are faced with adult concerns — too soon, they are introduced to weighty issues of race, sex, and violence. Black people in their sphere are demeaned, raped, and killed — usually by white folks. (On further consideration the works of Mark Twain are a much fairer comparison, though they’re still a world apart).

Parks opens his film with a tornado on the Kansas prairie, a cinematic reference perhaps to The Wizard of Oz, but Newt isn’t transported to a magical place. He seeks refuge from the storm along with a very pretty older girl, who, it’s heavily implied, takes his virginity.

The Learning Tree doesn’t have a specific plot per se, but rather takes us through several experiences, good and bad, that impact and shape the teenager: witnessing a white sheriff shoot an unarmed black man, falling in love for the first time, dealing with his mother’s failing health, clashing with an embittered friend turned enemy, and bravely testifying at a trial after witnessing a murder — even though he knows there may be personal and racial fallout when he speaks his truth.

The film works well in part because Newt is such a great kid, humble and gentle in spirit, always listening to his mother and trying to do the right thing, even though that’s difficult. It’s his mother whose wisdom provides him with the metaphor that serves at the title of the novel and film.

When Newt does resort to anger, such as when he lashes out against a racist teacher, you know it’s because he’s really had it — and you’re right there with him feeling his frustration and rage.

Even so, while being upfront about the racism of the era, Parks doesn’t villainize on basis of race — the racist teacher, for example, is countered by a sympathetic white principal who understands and excuses Newt’s outrage once he learns the reason for it.

Newt’s story also plays out in parallel to that of his estranged friend Marcus (Alex Clarke), who goes down a different path, turning to violence and hatred — eventually causing them to come to blows.

It’s a very beautiful and moving film, and I can’t recommend it highly enough, both for the film and the incredible home video edition that Criterion has put together.

The Package

The Learning Tree is new on Blu-ray from Criterion. The Blu-ray is packaged in Criterion’s usual transparent prestige Scanavo case.

The included booklet (38 internal pages plus covers) is so worth celebrating. It reprints sections from a famous 1963 Life magazine photo-essay (“How It Feels to be Black”), and 2005 memoir A Hungry Heart, specifically two chapters recounting the making of the film version of The Learning Tree.

This is a truly special release, concerning a film of great historical significance and reflected in the supplementary materials which include not only modern reflections on Parks and the film, but three short films which reflect different aspects of Parks as director, photographer, storyteller, and father.

Special Features and Extras

A Conversation with Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas (17:58)
Hosted by Michael B Gillespie. Two black artists, who are mother and son, discuss their relationship with Parks, both directly and through his work and influence.

Revisiting the Learning Tree (29:20)
A phenomenal discussion about Parks and his work, featuring black filmmakers discussing Parks, his films, and The Learning Tree against the backdrop of race, civil rights, and the emergent black American culture and identity of the 60s. Features Rhea Combs, Ernest Dickerson, Ina Diane Archer, and Nelson George.

The Movie Makers: Gordon Parks (7:19)
A vintage shot-on-film making of feature and interview, part of “The Movie Makers” series of BTS shorts.

Short Films:

  • Intro by Rhea Combs and Nelson George (8:35)
  • Diary of a Harlem Family (1968) (20:17)
    Narrated, introduced, and photographed (but not directed) by Parks. This stark black and white documentary short, mostly visually composed of still photography, follows the internal and external struggles of a poverty-stricken family in Harlem.
  • The World of Piri Thomas (1968) (59:30)
    Parks directed this educational short written and narrated by Puerto Rican-American activist, author, and poet Piri Thomas, a reformed former gang member who had just published his 1967 autobiography Down These Mean Streets. Piri shares his story and describes the hardship that faces people — especially children — growing up in Spanish Harlem. In some particularly harrowing scenes, Thomas artfully re-enacts his experiences with the horrors of violence and drug addiction.
  • My Father, Gordon Parks (1969) (27:15)
    A making-of documentary from the set of The Learning Tree, notably unique in that it’s directed by Gordon Parks Jr., analyzing his father’s work and legacy even as it’s being erected. One of the great takeaways we learn is that Parks used his directorial opportunity to hold the door open, not wasting his chance to employ as many African-American crew members as possible.

Theatrical Trailer

A/V Out

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Except where noted, all 16:9 screen images in this review are direct captures from the disc(s) in question with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.

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