The name of Gordon Parks was familiar to me, associated with the film ‘Shaft,’ which he wrote and directed. In my mind, I conjured up an image of him as a young, socially aware filmmaker, fully engaged with the Black Power movement and the ethos of the time the film was made.
Then, I recently watched ‘Weapon of Choice’ the HBO documentary on the man and discovered a much bigger and completely fascinating story.
He was one of 15 children, living off the land in Fort Scott, Kansas, worked by his farmer father Andrew and his mother Sarah. Born in November 1912, he was named him Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks.
In a time of segregation his High School was too small to fully follow that despised dictum, but the black students were banned from taking part in social occasions and sports, all the same.
Mum Sarah died when he was 14 and Gordon had moved to Minnesota, to move in with his sister, but that failed to work out. So, aged 15, he was on the streets and took a variety of jobs to survive. A singer and piano player in bars and brothels, and playing as a pro basketball player, among them.
‘More than talent or anything else, was my need to be somebody; to save myself from early defeat.’ He said later.
After the financial crisis following the Wall Street crash of 1929, he hid on a train, which landed him in Chicago. On that train, he saw a discarded magazine, and became bewitched by a photo spread within it. Inspired, he bought a cheap camera from a pawnshop and set about learning how to use it. The technician who developed his subsequent photos, admired the work greatly and suggested to Gordon to take up a job working for a clothing store, photographing the fashions of the day.
That work was seen by the wife of the great heavyweight boxer Joe Louis ,who encouraged Gordon to take photos of those on the ‘society’ circuit she mixed in.
From there he broadened out and began capturing the work and movements of the African Americans in the local area. That work led him to win the Julius Rosenwald fellowship, which in turn brought him to the attention of Roy Stryker, who asked Gordon to work for the FSA – the Farm Security Administration – with the aim of examining and documenting the then state of US society.
Among his most famous images from this period is ‘American Gothic Washington DC’ from the year 1942. It is of Afro American office cleaner called Ella Watson, who can be seen holding a broom and a mop, standing in front of a stars and stripes, echoing the ‘American Gothic’ painting by Gary Wood. This was Gordon’s comment on the racism that was still at large. In his mind, his camera had indeed become his ‘weapon of choice’ that phrase later becoming the name of his memoirs.
‘I might have turned to the gun or the knife’ he had said in a televised interview, ‘but by then I had chosen the camera. This was my weapon against poverty and racism.’
He then moved on to work for the office of the war dept. capturing the 332nd fighter squadron, an all-black aircrew unit during the Second World War, as well as travelling the country, capturing the nation going about its daily business, with work, such as the ‘grease plant worker’ in Pittsburgh.
Gordon found himself in Harlem as the War ended and became a freelance fashion photographer at Vogue, often working with Ralph Ellison, and developing his signature style. He also published two books on photography in 1947 and 1948 and went on to eventually to write fifteen books in total.
Creativity just poured from Parks. Coming a long way from playing a piano in a brothel aged 15, he also composed ‘Concerto for Piano and Orchestra’ in 1953 and ‘Tree Symphony’ in 1967.
He also pitched an idea to LIFE magazine for a photo shoot and feature on a Harlem gang leader, which gained him a commission. Parks set about securing a collection of never seen before ‘behind the scenes’ photos of life in a gang known as ‘The Midtowners’ and in particular, their leader Red Jackson. As a result of the success of the piece, Gordon joined the ‘staff’ rota and for the next 20 years completed over 300 assignments.
His subjects ranged from sports, the theatre, Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam, fashion shows, Muhammad Ali, poverty , the Civil Rights struggle and Stokely Carmichael among many, many others. He and Malcolm became particularly close with Gordon becoming godfather to one of his daughters. Parks also chose to show the normal everyday life lived by many, using colour photography as early as 1956.
A move into the world of the moving image, seemed the next natural order of things and he began to make documentaries on the black experience. His semi- biographical book ‘The Learning Tree’ was optioned for a film by Warner Brothers in 1969 and Gordon got the job to direct it , thus becoming the first major black director in Hollywood. He also wrote the screenplay and composed the musical score.
His next film, ‘Shaft’ in 1971 was shot on location in New York and it is seen as very much the gateway for many later Afro American filmmakers to later follow. Richard Roundtree played the private eye John Shaft, who had an ‘in’ with the cops and the villains alike, and it came with a legendary musical score by Isaac Hayes of course.
People later deduced the character of Shaft was based on Park’s own life. The film started off a wave of films which became part of the ‘Blaxploitation’ genre. Shot for $1.2 million, it took in nearly $18 million at the box office. Parks also directed the sequel ‘Shaft’s Big Score’ as well as ‘Super Cop’s and ‘Leadbelly’ the film biography of the Blues singer of the same name. Then, nothing.
‘The sad truth is that there was a ceiling for Gordon in Hollywood, no one was calling him to make great World War II pics.’ – John Maggio.
Still he created. With the help and encouragement of Dean and Vivian Dixon and his long time musical collaborator Henry Brant, 1989 saw him compose and choreograph ‘Martin’ a ballet created in honour of Martin Luther King Jr.
‘I didn’t set out to do all that I did,’ Parks once told an interviewer ‘I think there was always fear – fear of not being educated. All the things I did were done because of the fear of failure.’
Gordon Parks died aged 93 from the effects of cancer in New York in 2006.
Director Spike Lee cites Parks as an inspiration, stating ‘You get inspiration where it comes from. It doesn’t have to be because I’m looking at his films. The odds that he got these films made under, when there were no black directors, is enough.’
The Mumper of SE5
THE SPEAKEASY VOLUME 1
THE SPEAKEASY Volume One by Mark Baxter (The Mumper)
Illustrations by Lewis Wharton
Foreword by Gary Crowley
Book available to order HERE
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