CFA partners with Anthology Film Archives and the Gordon Parks Foundation for a free streaming series, July 7-20!
Still from FLAVIO (1964)
A towering figure in twentieth century American culture, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a photographer, author, musician, and – not least of all – filmmaker. In a career that spanned over fifty years, he documented American life and culture with a focus on social justice, race relations, the civil rights movement, and the African-American experience.
Born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks was drawn to photography as a young man. Despite his lack of professional training, he won the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942; this led to a position with the photography section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., and, later, the Office of War Information (OWI). By the mid-1940s, he was working as a freelance photographer for publications such as Vogue, Glamour, and Ebony. Parks was hired as staff photographer for Life magazine in 1948, where over two decades he created some of his most groundbreaking work. His versatility, and bold willingness to tackle different art forms, became clear early on, with the publication in 1964 of his semiautobiographical novel, The Learning Tree. The enormous success of his literary debut led to the opportunity, in 1969, to direct the Hollywood adaptation himself, making him the first Black filmmaker to helm a major studio feature, and leading to a pioneering cinematic career.
Parks would go on to make five further feature films, including the blaxploitation classic SHAFT (1971), the underrated THE SUPER COPS (1974), and the first film version of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, Twelve Years a Slave (SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY, which forms a fascinating contrast with Steve McQueen’s 2013 adaptation), as well as a highly personal essay film, MOMENTS WITHOUT PROPER NAMES (1987).
Later this year, coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the release of SHAFT, Anthology Film Archives will host a comprehensive retrospective devoted to Parks’s work as a filmmaker. As a sneak-preview of that forthcoming retrospective, they are now presenting a special online program focusing on three films that Parks made or contributed to in the years before the production of THE LEARNING TREE. FLAVIO (1964) is a short film centering on Flávio da Silva, a young boy from the favelas of Rio de Janeiro who Parks photographed for one of his best-known assignments for Life. DIARY OF A HARLEM FAMILY (1968) utilizes Parks’s photographs for another Life magazine assignment, combined with his voiceover narration to reveal the racism and economic hardships experienced by Harlem residents. THE WORLD OF PIRI THOMAS (1968) extends this concern by unveiling the specter of poverty through the eyes of the eponymous Puerto Rican-Cuban writer and poet. These rarely-seen early works will be supplemented by Romas Slezas’s illuminating short, LISTEN TO A STRANGER: AN INTERVIEW WITH GORDON PARKS (1973).
Anthology presents “The World of Gordon Parks” in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation and Chicago Film Archives. For additional information and online resources, visit CFA’s Midwest Stories page, and The Gordon Parks Foundation website.
Very special thanks to Michal Raz-Russo & Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. (The Gordon Parks Foundation) and Nancy Watrous & Yasmin Desouki (Chicago Film Archives); as well as to Jennifer Bertani (WNET); Brittany D. Friesner (Indiana University Cinema); Jonathan Hertzberg & Bret Wood (Kino Lorber, Inc.); and Rachael Stoeltje & Carmel Curtis (Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive).
To access the films (from July 7-20), click on the film titles below, or visit this Vimeo showcase.
1964, 12 min, 16mm-to-digital. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.
“Based on a 1961 Life Magazine series by Parks, FLAVIO depicts a day in the life of a twelve-year old Brazilian boy named Flavio, one of a family of ten living on a squalid, impoverished hillside across the bay from Rio de Janeiro. Parks depicts the details, moods, and tensions that affect the boy who, though suffering from tuberculosis, keeps the house going and represents a possible hope for his family.” –CHICAGO FILM ARCHIVES
DIARY OF A HARLEM FAMILY
1968, 20 min, 16mm-to-digital. Narration and photography: Gordon Parks. New digital restoration courtesy of Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive.
Like FLAVIO, this film grew out of one of Parks’s extraordinary photo essays, a Life Magazine piece that focused on the Fontenelle family. Constructed from Parks’s photographs, new film footage, and Parks’s quietly impassioned narration, DIARY OF A HARLEM FAMILY is a painful but sensitive portrait of a family beset by the ravages of poverty.
THE WORLD OF PIRI THOMAS
NET Journal, 1968, 60 min, 16mm-to-digital. Special sequences directed by Gordon Parks; additional photography by Dan Drasin, Paul Glicksberg, Gordon Parks, Jr., and Frank Simon. New digital restoration courtesy of Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive.
THE WORLD OF PIRI THOMAS depicts life in Spanish Harlem through the eyes – and writings – of Puerto Rican-Cuban poet Piri Thomas, whose memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967) had recently become a best-seller.
LISTEN TO A STRANGER: AN INTERVIEW WITH GORDON PARKS
1973, 19 min, 16mm-to-digital. Courtesy of Kino Lorber. Preserved by Washington University St. Louis with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
This short documentary by filmmaker Romas Slezas (who passed away in 2019), captures Parks on the set of SHAFT’S BIG SCORE, and at his Beverly Hills home, where he shares memories and stories about his life and career. LISTEN TO A STRANGER was produced by the pioneering production company, Blackside, Inc., whose founder Henry Hampton would later create the renowned documentary series, EYES ON THE PRIZE.