Exploring the Artefacts #5: The Alchemist Gordon Parks
Exploring The Artefacts is a series in which I examine some unique and significant components, or by-products, of cinema storytelling that are often under-appreciated.
The "Alchemist" was multi-talented filmmaker Gordon Parks (1912–2006) who, at age 57, was the first African American to write, produce and direct a film for a major studio (Warner Brothers). He also composed the music, not to mention the fact he turned out a very fine motion picture. The Learning Tree (1969) was this accomplishment, a semi-autobiographical account based on his novel of teenage life in Kansas during the 1920s. It is quite obviously a labour of love. Some have criticized the film for Parks' lack of experience behind the camera showing up on screen. I strongly disagree with this sentiment as the story is told through his subject's eyes. Kyle Johnson portrays Newt, the young man who's trying to form some kind of value system in an environment where racial inequality is prevalent. I think the film's critics may have mistakenly confused an inexperienced and rather awkward central character with the director's cinematic storytelling which is actually quite assured. The movie's narrative is realistic and compelling thanks in part to a host of veteran character actors (Dana Elcar, Malcolm Atterbury, Richard Ward and Dub Taylor amongst others) in strong roles. The story also depicts one of cinema's most tragic teenage characters, Marcus (an outstanding debut performance by Alex Clarke) who struggles to survive against all odds.
There appears to be no critical dissent in the photography and music departments. Parks was highly regarded in both fields having been a Life magazine photographer during the late '40s through the late '60s. Credit must go to The Learning Tree's cinematographer Burnett Guffey but Parks' directorial guidance is evident. He went on to compose the excellent music for Shaft's Big Score (1972) including a terrific main theme song rarely heard since it fell into the shadow of its predecessor's wildly popular hit song "Shaft" composed by Isaac Hayes. By the way, both Shaft (1971) and Shaft's Big Score were directed by Gordon Parks.
I have included here the opening credits, including its title tune, for The Learning Tree and "Blowin' Your Mind" from Shaft's Big Score both composed by Parks and both sung by O.C. Smith. Hope you enjoy them!
The DVD of The Learning Tree is available here: