Thursday, March 9, 2006

Gordon Parks R.I.P.

Gordon Parks, one of the few renaissance men of the 20th Century, has passed on. He was a photographer, a novelist, and a filmmaker. He died Tuesday at age 93.

Parks was born on November 30, 1912 in Fort Scott, Kansas. He dropped out of school and worked various jobs before finally getting a job with the Farm Security Administration (FSA), one of the New Deal programmes dedicated to helping the agriculture industry. He was the first African American to work there. It was while he was with the FSA that he started taking photographs, chronicling the travils of African Americans of the era. By the late Forties he started taking photographs for Life Magazine--the first African American man to do so. Among his photo essays were ones centred on the life of African American families in the Deep South and the beginnings of the civil rights movement.

Parks later started writing as well. He started with photography manuals, but would go onto write essays, poetry, novels, and even a ballet. His book The Learning Tree, based on his early life, was published in 1963. He alsoe expanded into film. His first movie was a short documentary called Flavio, based on one of his photo essays for Life about a boy in Rio De Janeiro dying of astma and malnutrition. He would direct his first feature, The Learning Tree (based on his novel), in 1969. He became the first African American to direct a movie for a major motion picture studio.

It was in 1971 that Parks would direct the film that would make him most famous. Shaft introduced the world to the first major African American hero of a movie and started the film movement known as Blaxploitation. Parks would only direct a few more films--Shaft's Big Score, Supercops, and Leadbelly.

I have to say that I have always admired Parks. I must regrettably say that I haven't read any of his books, but I have seen all of his films. The Learning Tree and Shaft still number among my favourite movies. And like many people, I have seen his photographs. His talent was proof that sometimes a picture can say more than words.

In my humble opinion Gordon Parks was a most remarkable man. There are great photographers. There are great writers. There are great filmmakers. There are very few men who can claim all three. What is more, through his photographs and writings Parks made the rest of America aware of the plight of African Americans in the Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. In many respects his photography was pivotal to the Civil Rights movement. As a director he made only a few films, but they were superior to those of many more prolific directors. The Learning Tree was one of the first serious films to focus on the lives of poor African Americans, while Shaft was one of the first films in which an African American was portrayed neither as a buffoon or a family servant. Parks was in many respects an innovator and in many other ways revolutionary for his time. I don't think his contributions to American pop culture and American society can be easily overestimated.

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