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The Learning Tree

Article Written by: Thomas Cripps, Morgan State University
*Article used with permission from the Kansas Historical Society*

     In l968 Gordon Parks was already famous for his African American “firsts” in several arts, among them commercial and journalistic photography. In that year he produced, wrote, and directed his first movie, The Learning Tree, drawn from his own autobiographical novel. With touching respect and love for his native Kansas, he shot the film on location in a replica of his Fort Scott birthplace. Yet, of all his works, the movie shimmers with the cosmopolitan eye of a man of the world. Like the character of the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, he chooses everything— scene, incident, character—to open the viewer’s eye first to the racial condition of Kansas and then to the human condition, all captured in the coming of age of an endearing black manchild.

     Such universality was a central idiom in the tragic era of the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy, three figures often posed as popular icons and invoked as martyrs to a lost rightness of things. This unifying sentiment became an essential element in movies made by and for African Americans and helped extend the screen imagery of the previous two decades, the “age of Sidney Poitier.” The historian Mark Reid, in his study Redefining Black Film (1993), has named the genre “the black family film,” a species that, in this case, placed a black family in a sweet, embracing world of its own, but also set that family in the larger white world defined by its oppression of and discrimination against its black neighbors.

     Thankfully, in Parks’s hands the movie did not become a black instance of “Capra Corn,” the sort of sentimental movie of which Frank Capra had been the master, as with It’s a Wonderful Life (l946). Rather, Parks leavens his nostalgia with an edge of melodramatic reality by portraying the oppressive racial arrangements of life in the Kansas of the l920s. That is, he manages to juggle often jarring melodramatic racial incidents along with reportage of life as it was. Indeed, at some moments The Learning Tree becomes
almost an “anatomy” of midwestern life as lived by African Americans, the burden of rich detail slowing the action. In one such moment, for example, every detail of life in a lowdown rural brothel—each detail except the real reason for its existence—is vividly sketched, including a raspy original “blues” rendition by none other than the fabled Jimmy Rushing himself (credited as “James” Rushing!).

     Not that this calculatedly slow pace acted as a drag on the plot. In fact, it moves not so much linearly as through an accretion of layers, creating a portrait of a long-gone black culture as though following the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s method of “thick description” (see, for example, his classic essay “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight” in The Interpretation of Cultures [1973]). The Kansas setting is established as the film's main titles scroll past, complete with a “twister” that echoes the opening of Victor Fleming’s The Wizard of Oz (l939). Parks ends his introduction, however, not in the Emerald City, but in a dreamy, half-seen bit of adolescent erotica. The black characters are piously churched, dutiful, and familial. They are studious in school despite ceilings imposed by “helpful” whites, who believe they know what is best for “colored” children doomed to lives as servants and cooks. White teachers and doctors seem civil, courteous, even solicitous—unlike those lower down the social ladder, who lash out at them as though in compensation for their own lives on the bottom rail. One such harsh farmer beats a black child for stealing apples; a fat, sweaty, white cop, tobacco plug in his cheek, shoots a fleeing black boy; white kids in an ice cream parlor snub the blacks; and so on. Apart from one angry black kid—named “Savage”—the black circles are, by way of contrast, even handed and tolerant. At one moment Newt, the protagonist, offers to work for free all summer to atone for an incident in the orchard in which one of his friends had given the farmer a licking, after the farmer had beaten the boy for stealing apples.

     Away from the invisible line that sets black apart from white, the black side of life seems a rich, multilayered idyll that includes a sprawling, joyous summer fish fry; Newt’s romantic stroll with his black girl through “our private little garden”; a rousing church service; a humble funeral for the family matriarch. The fact of segregation that denies the black kids access to school proms and athletic teams is only spoken of, not shown. Interracial and intraracial tensions are seen only in a running subplot in which Savage calls the sheriff a “Peckerwood,” does a stretch in a “reformatory” (during which a spiteful guard wishes him “Merry Christmas, nigger”), and viciously fights ghts Newt in a carnival “battle royal” in which black kids brawl in a ring for the amusement of white bettors and gawkers. In the end, in an echo of a similar courtroom drama in Robert Mulligan’s film adaptation of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird (l962), Newt bravely testifies before a white judge in a way that leads to the death of a black man. Part of Newt’s (and Parks’s) coming of age in Fort Scott, Kansas, in the l920s includes choosing right conduct rather than loyalty to the race.

     Admirable, yes, but not entirely according to the lights of the black urban generation who lived through the flagging of the Civil Rights Movement, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the ensuing “long hot summers” of urban despair that followed. The age of the Black Panther had begun, almost coincident with the release of The Learning Tree. Its homely virtues might have earned The Learning Tree a more indelible mark in movie history as an exemplar of a genre of sentimental realist views of black life were it not for the coming of so-called “blaxploitation” movies that followed the release of Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song (l971) and Parks’s own Shaft (1971), models for a decade of violent, urban tales of the streets. Still, one might imagine a future in which Gordon Park’s The Learning Tree becomes an annually rerun television celebration of homely virtues in the manner of Steven Spielberg’s film lm adaptation Toni Morrison’s The Color Purple (1985).

Thomas Cripps
Morgan State University

The Learning Tree

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