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Gordon Parks

By RD Heldenfels Published: March 8, 2006

The death of Gordon Parks reminded me of ''Half Past Autumn,'' a fine documentary about the man, which aired on HBO in 2000.  Below is a column I wrote when the production was televised.

If there's a defining image for Gordon Parks, it may be of the movie detective John Shaft striding through the streets of New York City in the opening of the original 1972 version of ''Shaft.''
   Parks directed the movie. It's easy to imagine him instead of actor Richard Roundtree in those opening scenes -- cool, confident, suave but almost always in motion, always on the lookout for another adventure.
   We don't see that restless Parks in ''Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks.'' ...  Parks will be 88 on that day [when it aired], and the man talking to the camera in the documentary is an elder statesman, white-haired and reflective.
   But we certainly hear about the restlessness in the life of a man whose summary in Who's Who calls him "film director, author, photographer, composer" -- and somehow seems inadequate.
   "His creativity manifests itself in such a wide variety of ways that one has to strain to find someone his equal," art historian Thomas M. Shaw wrote in the St. James Guide to Black Artists.
   While you might argue about the quality of Parks' work in a single genre -- whether, for example, his films endure as more than cultural artifacts -- it's the breadth of his accomplishments that inspires awe.
   Parks was the first African-American to work as a photojournalist for Life magazine, the top outlet for photographers in its day. He was also the first to direct a major motion picture, 1969's ''The Learning Tree.'' And the film was based on Park' best-selling novel, his first try at that form.
   His life has had its problems. He repeatedly failed as a husband. His son, Gordon Parks, Jr. -- also a film director, best known for ''Superfly'' -- died in an airplane crash in 1979. His movie directing tapered off after he felt his 1976 film Leadbelly had been mishandled by its studio.
   And, as the documentary shows, taking pictures of problems around the world threw light on issues but did not solve the problems of the people in the pictures.
   Half Past Autumn interviews Parks, displays his photographs, shows off his musical compositions and includes clips from some of his movies.
   It also includes interviews with admirers, friends, ex-wives and a couple of subjects of famous photographs.
   And in its soft-spoken way, it tells the story of someone who, from his birth in Kansas, showed a quiet determination to succeed, along with a sense that just about anything was possible.
   First taking up a camera in the '30s and arriving at Life in the late '40s, Parks became famous for shooting famous personalities and ordinary people whose lives informed the social conflicts of which Parks was all too keenly aware.
   Particularly in his photographs dealing with race -- notably of struggling families in the North and the South -- Parks faced obstacles.
   On assignment for Life in Alabama, he discovered that the magazine's local contact had ties to a local racist group. (He still did the story, but the family he profiled was driven out of town.)
   But as his reputation grew, he found that he was able to go places white photographers could not -- inside Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement and the Black Panthers, for example. (The Panthers even offered him a job.) But he took pains not to be defined solely by race, taking photographs of
models and movie stars. He turned down the job with the Panthers because "violence was not a thing for me."
   ''Shaft'' means a lot more to its fans than it does to Parks, who made it to "establish myself as a director who could do different kinds of films and make money."
   Of course, Parks spread his passions wide. ''Half Past Autumn'' -- directed by Craig Rice and written by Lou Potter -- cannot begin to contain all of his work in any single field. But by showing not only the range of his efforts, but also the humanity he brought to all the endeavors, it gets us both into Parks' work and his heart.

  (end column)

   You can still find the documentary, by the way. Click on its title at the top of my post, and you go to a link at It's also in the catalog of the Akron public library.

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