in Criterion Month

The Learning Tree (1969)

It takes a special kind of person to be able to claim that they were the first Black director to helm a Hollywood studio film. It takes a polymath to able to make that claim, but also while having their directing career be just one of many creative pursuits that they received widespread acclaim for. That happens to be the case with Gordon Parks, whose The Learning Tree was a breakthrough in Hollywood studios becoming open to hiring Black directors. However, this came after Parks had already spent decades as a revered photojournalist, capturing the minutiae of mid-20th century African-American life, while he also published a few books before turning his semi-autobiographical novel The Learning Tree into his first film. And this was before he started scoring his own movies as well as painting in his spare time.

There are a few major details from Gordon Parks’ equally active childhood that happened to make their way into The Learning Tree that make it the work of semi-autobiography. Namely, Parks grew up in segregated rural Kansas, was discouraged by his white teachers from attending college, and his mother died when he was a teenager. The stand-in for a young Parks in The Learning Tree is Newt Winger (played by Kyle Johnson), who is growing up in Kansas in the 1920s and doesn’t seem to know what to do with his general enthusiasm and curiosity.

He spends most of his time hanging out with his friends, who get into trouble one day when they’re caught stealing apples from the orchard of a local farmer, Jake Kiner (George Mitchell). Newt’s friend Marcus (Alex Clarke) retaliates when the farmer finds them, and badly hurts him, bludgeoning him in the head several times, badly enough for Kiner to end up in the hospital. The boys are eventually trailed by the town’s racist sheriff, who has extremely Rod Steiger in In The Heat of The Night energy, who shoots and kills one of Newt’s friends who tries to outrun him, despite not being responsible for Kiner’s injuries. Newt’s mother forces him to work for Kiner over the summer, mostly out of guilt over the prior attack.

Meanwhile, Marcus is sentenced to jail time while maintaining a lack of remorse for what he’s done, which doesn’t sit well with the town’s judge and police department. Most of the film is fairly episodic, as we see Newt struggle to reach his full potential in school, while he also starts spending time with a girl in his grade, Arcella (Mira Waters). However, Arcella ends up being impregnated by a rich white kid in town, which seems like a storyline that should come to a dramatic head at some point, but doesn’t really, since Arcella ends up leaving town. Instead, the movie’s climax sees another attack against farmer Kiner, which Newt witnesses, and thus throws the movie’s climax into courtroom drama territory.

Considering The Learning Tree was Gordon Parks’ first film after a lengthy career as a photographer, I was curious to see how much that would impact the look of the film. Overall, there is some really striking imagery, especially the way Parks captures these characters in relation to the rustic Kansas setting of the film. However, there are also some camera techniques, such as slow zooms and heavy soft focus for its dreamier sequences, that feel very of the late ’60s, despite the film’s 1920s setting. But overall, Parks seems very comfortable shooting these characters in this environment, perhaps because he knows this story as well as anyone.

Also because of Gordon Parks’ unconventional background, I was wondering whether the film’s style would resemble something a little more experimental, but The Learning Tree has a fairly slick Hollywood feel, despite how unusual it was to see a coming-of-age movie from this perspective. It’s probably my biggest qualm with the movie, since it doesn’t always feel like a film that embodies the New Hollywood movement of this era, where new voices and socially conscious ideas were able to make their way into mainstream movies. The Learning Tree sometimes comes off as a little corny, mostly due to its overly busy, generic-sounding score. But also lead actor Kyle Johnson isn’t always able to handle the heaviness of some of the subject matter, but then again, considering how much trauma this kid goes through, it’d be hard for any young actor to completely pull off.

Still, the film is invaluable as its status as the first breakthrough in showing that Black directors were more than capable of helming mainstream movies, which would be further bolstered when Parks was tapped to direct his next film, another breakthrough, 1971’s Shaft. But even apart from that, it’s just refreshing to see a coming-of-age movie from this perspective, laying the groundwork for movies like Boyz N The Hood and Moonlight, and it’s even more impressive considering that the coming-of-age movie itself was in its infancy, especially in American movies. And even if the score for this movie is a little hokey and unbefitting of the film’s uniqueness, at least Gordon Parks more than made up for this with an all-timer courtesy of Isaac Hayes for his next film.