It has always been my long held contention that cinema–while being a medium of mass entertainment–can also be a powerful art form that can illuminate, inspire and ultimately change the world we live in. One artist that worked in the mediums of photography and film making that truly exemplified my theory that film can be truly transformative is photographer and film maker Gordon Parks. His art not only entertained, with films like Shaft, but changed the world.
I cannot think of more simple and elegant way to summarize how I feel about the power of cinema then the phrase “Soldier of Cinema”. The first time I heard this phrase was from film maker Werner Herzog during a question and answer period after his film, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Soldier of Cinema, inspired and resonated with me. The process of film making can be a constant war. The battle of trying to realize your story through the obstacles of budgetary constrains, time, the elements to only name a few of the problems. One of the things that I have applied to the Herzog-coined phrase is to maintain strength and
courage against insurmountable odds.
If there were ever a person who personified the term Soldier of Cinema, it was Parks. Much like Herzog, he spoke of photography and film in notions of war:
Those people who want to use a camera should have something in mind, there’s something they want to show, something they want say, I picked up a camera because it was my choice of weapons against what I hated most about the universe: racism, intolerance, poverty.
His very life was a battle. Born November 30th, 1912. Gordon Parks lived ninety three years but almost did not make it to see his first day. He was born without vital signs. The doctor declared Parks dead. A young assistant by the name of Dr. Gordon asked the doctor if he could try something and after receiving the go ahead, proceeded to procure a chunk of ice from a nearby icebox and place the ice into a bathtub and dunked Gordon Parks in the tub and as Parks said, “I began to holler and have been hollering ever since.”
Parks’ childhood was spent in Fort Scott, Kansas. Although Kansas entered the Union as a “free state”, Kansas was indeed Southern state and as such segregation and racism were an every day part of life for African-Americans. One such instance where Parks was face to face with blatant racism was during his high school years. His then teacher, Miss McClintock–after
noticing that Parks had applied for college informed him, “very few Negroes will go to college because you are simply not college material…you all will only wind up as porters and maids.”
Suffice to say, Parks never made it to college. At the age of fifteen, he lost his mother. Gordon was then sent to live with family in Minnesota. Losing the anchor that was his mother, and conflicts with the family led to Mr. Parks becoming homeless at the height of St. Paul’s brutal winter. Parks, on the quest to survive, began to wander and started working odd jobs. He was a porter in a pool hall, played piano in a brothel, shoveled snow, even played a year as a semi-pro basketball player. In a true ironic twist, Parks would receive over forty doctorates from colleges and universities, including Princeton.
It would be in a movie theater in Chicago that the future photographer and film director Gordon Parks would come across the epiphany that would forever change his life. The film he would see that day was Norman Alley’s The Bombing of USS Panay. Parks was immediately taken with the courage of the photographer Norman Alley for not leaving his post and capturing the sinking of the USS Panay. As it turns out Norman was in the theater that day and was introduced and took to the stage to a great round of applause. The young Parks was also taken with the glamor of being a photographer. It was not soon after in a pawn shop in Seattle that Parks would purchase his first camera. One of Parks’ first photographs that would transcend the medium was his photo of Ella Watson holding a mop and a broom while the American flag loomed in the background. Parks’ camera would focus on all aspects of American life, be it social problems or fashion models, Harlem to Hollywood.
In a era where the doors were closed Parks single-handily opened them. Wanting to work for the most prestigious magazine of the time, Life Magazine, Gordon opened the door to then picture editor Wilson Hicks’ office without an appointment–going against any form of protocol. He was then promptly told that as quickly as he entered Hicks’ office he should as quickly depart because you do not enter the office without an appointment. Parks then said to Hicks, “Well I did not think I would be able to receive an appointment, could you at least take a look at some of my photos?”
Hicks then called in a couple of other editors and they then promptly hired Parks. This would make him the first ever African-American photographer to shoot for Life Magazine. His camera would go on to snap photos of people from Ingrid Bergman to Malcom X.
Quite curious to what kind of person Parks was, a man who opened so many doors for so many people, I recently contacted Jill Warford–the Executive Director of the Gordon Parks Museum/Center for Culture and Diversity at Fort Scott Community College and asked her. She had this to say:
Mr. Parks was a very unassuming man. Very understated but also knew what he wanted and went after it. He never let anything stop him and wrote his last book just several months before he died. He was a creative person who worked best late into the night. He had friends literally from all walks of life.
Parks’ journey as an artist would also see him become the first African-American to direct a major Hollywood motion picture,The Learning Tree. In my next article I will take a closer look at the film that the Library of Congress has placed on it’s national regristry of classic American films, but now is out of print and unavailable on dvd.
Robert Mitchell has worked for The Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW, The Toronto After Dark Film Festival and now ActionFest as a videographer/blogger. He’s also a noted interviewer who has talked to over five hundred people working in the entertainment business. This is what Dave Alexander Editor-in-Chief of Rue Morgue Magazine has said, “Robert’s enthusiasm and versatility is what makes him a great interviewer. On the red carpet at a film festival, at a crowded bar, or on the fly in the street–he’s there with a smile and engaging questions. A real pro.”
Some of Robert’s film festival work can be viewed here.