#85) The Learning Tree (1969)
OR “Summer of ‘22”
Directed & Written by Gordon Parks. Based on his novel.
Class of 1989
The Plot: “The Learning Tree” is Gordon Parks’ semi-autobiographical slice of life and coming of age in rural 1920s Kansas. Young African-American Newt Taylor (Kyle Johnson) discovers life and love amongst the seething racial intolerance of his town’s white community. Newt dreams of growing up and getting out of Kansas, but his steadfast mother Sarah (Estelle Evans) reminds him to use his time here as a way of understanding the world around him (his “learning tree” if you will). Newt’s positive outlook is contrasted by the more jaded views of his childhood friend Marcus (Alex Clarke), who is constantly harassed by the town’s racist Sheriff Kirky (Dana Eclar).
Why It Matters: The NFR cites the film’s historical significance as the first studio-backed film to be directed by an African-American. The write-up also calls the film “visually beautiful and moving, if somewhat sentimentally melodramatic”. An essay by Maurice Berger discusses the film, as well as Parks’ work to achieve racial tolerance throughout his life.
But Does It Really?: Historically, of course. The film itself is not perfect, but it’s an important stepping-stone for depicting African-Americans on screen with more complexity and diversity than before. I don’t know if “The Learning Tree” would make my list of the first 25 films to be inducted into the NFR, but it deserves a place on the list; not only for its historical merits, but also for being an introduction to the work of Gordon Parks.
Everybody Gets One: Though not his only film on the Registry (See “Legacy” below), I’ll take this opportunity to highlight the amazing life of Gordon Parks. His brief tenure as a filmmaker is just one chapter in a life that had already included being a photojournalist, author/poet and composer. Kyle Johnson is known for two things: being the lead in this film, and being Nichelle Nichols’ son.
Wow, That’s Dated: Through no fault of its own, the whole film has the vibe of an Old Hollywood studio film that had not yet embraced New Hollywood’s way of making movies.
Title Track: Sarah says “learning tree” once about a half hour into the film. In addition, we get a title song.
Seriously, Oscars?: Sure it was groundbreaking and well-received in 1969, but how could you give any Oscar nominations to “The Learning Tree” when “Hello, Dolly!” came out in the same year? (That was sarcasm. The film version of “Hello, Dolly!” sucks on toast.)
- Much of this film was shot on location in Gordon Parks’ hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas.
- For those of you paying attention, this is the second film from the NFR’s inaugural class of 1989 that takes place in Kansas and prominently features a tornado.
- Finally, someone named “Newt” who isn’t repulsive beyond belief.
- Surprising no one, a film directed by a photojournalist has excellent cinematography. Shout-out to Burnett Guffey, quite an accomplished cinematographer himself, though I’m sure Gordon had plenty to say about the film’s compositions.
- He wrote it, directed it, and produced it, but Gordon Parks’ score is the only part of his multi-hyphenate I have a problem with. It’s just a little too intrusive; at times it sounds like everyone’s going to break out into song.
- Sarah is played by Estelle Evans, whose sisters were fellow actors Rosanna Carter and Esther Rolle (aka Florida from “Good Times”). Esther is the only one of the three who didn’t change her name for showbiz.
- Warner Bros.’ stance on post-code nudity? Butts and plenty of ‘em!
- No matter what your creed or color, we can all agree that potato sack races are stupid.
- I appreciate the complexity in which the film presents the town’s racism and bigotry, except for the scene with the principal. A little too “white savior” for my taste.
- Uncle Rob’s wish for a world filled with multi-colored people would eventually come true with “Doug”.
- The film takes its time meandering from one episode to another, but the last third of the film involving the courtroom brings it all together. It’s especially heartbreaking once you start to figure out where it’s all leading.
- Gordon Parks’ next picture? “Shaft”.
Further Viewing: Produced by Denzel Washington and narrated by Alfre Woodard, “Half Past Autumn: The Life and Work of Gordon Parks” is a wonderful overview of Gordon Parks’ astounding life, as told by the man himself.
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