Based on his own autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree was, according to Roger Ebert, the first non-exploitation feature film made for wide release by an African American director. Set in rural 1920s-1930s Kansas, the film follows the story of Newt (Kyle Johnson), a teenager who must weather the racial prejudices of the time on a daily basis. After witnessing a murder, Newt must weigh what he saw against what it could mean for others in the black community, including his childhood friend Marcus (Alex Clarke). Of all the films that Gordon Parks directed, The Learning Tree was both the most personal and also the one that most dramatically offers links between his work as a master of 20th century photography and his efforts in the cinema. Shot by Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde, From Here to Eternity), the look of the film attests to the visual acuity of both Parks and his well-seasoned cinematographer. “What the camera had to do was expose the evils of racism, the evils of poverty, the discrimination and the bigotry, by showing the people who suffered most under it.”—Gordon Parks.
Other Films by Gordon Parks
In 1971, famed photographer Gordon Parks followed up his quiet, semi-autobiographical film The Learning Tree with what is arguably the commercial and critical peak of blaxploitation genre filmmaking. Powered by Isaac Hayes’s Grammy Award-winning soundtrack, Shaft catapulted star Richard Roundtree into the zeitgeist as John Shaft, a New York City private dick who finds himself …