In this companion piece to his retrospective of Gordon Parks’ career, Guest Star Robert Mitchell looks at Parks’ The Learning Tree and interviews lead actor, Kyle Johnson.
1968 was a tumultuous year in American history. A year marred by wide spread violence that would see Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in Memphis and Bobby Kennedy assassinated in Los Angeles. As the location of the Democratic national convention, Chicago saw its share of violence as police attacked student protesters. However, in September of 1968 in the small town of Fort Scott, Kansas cinematic history was unfolding.
Fort Scott was the birthplace and hometown of acclaimed photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks. After Parks’ successful biography, The Learning Tree—a novel based on Parks’ childhood experiences growing up in Fort Scott—was slated by Warner Brothers to be made into a feature film. With encouragement from his friend and fellow filmmaker, John Cassavetes, Parks would add another “first” in a lifetime of “firsts”. He would become the first African-American to write, direct and compose a major Hollywood motion picture. Parks naturally wanted to shoot the film in Fort Scott.
The Learning Tree is a coming of age story about a young man, Newt (Kyle Johnson), as he negotiates his way through the fictional town of Cherokee Flats. It is a landscape that is beautiful, hostile and where violence is always under the surface and can erupt at any second. Newt must contend with the prevailing attitudes of the times and the various people who encompass such xenophobic beliefs, be it a teacher, a rival in matters of the heart or the local police force.
However it is also a story about family, friendship and first love and loss. As Newt’s Mother Sarah (played by the wonderful Estelle Evans) says, “It’s not all a good place, not all a bad place either. Sort of like fruit on a tree, some good, some bad. No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats like that until the day you die, let it be your learning tree.”
Beautifully shot by academy award winning cinematographer Burnett Guffey under the direction of Parks. The film still has a powerful resonance and universal themes that are as important today as they were in 1969. In 1989 the film was named to the Library of Congress National Registry as a classic American film.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kyle Johnson who as the lead actor of The Learning Tree, was, in essence, playing the young Gordon Parks. Foremost in my thoughts, I was quite curious as to the reception of a major Hollywood film directed by an African-American in a small Southern rural town in an era in the midst of the fight for civil rights. Kyle had this to say,
Well there was actually a fair amount of resistance from the city fathers, the old guard, the old boy network, however you might want to describe it. They did not want the film to be there, they did not want Gordon there, they just wanted him to go away and not darken their door anymore. In an era where the idea of black pride, militancy became concerns across the country and so basically Fort Scott was scarred of Gordon Parks and they were apprehensive about how the town was going to be portrayed in the movie.
However, he went on to tell me,
At some point along the line, a contention of younger folk and some folks in the business community kind of went, now wait a minute, let me get this straight, your saying that this very famous person, who was born here and is famous all over the world, wants to come back and make a movie and bring two to three million dollars to inject into this local economy and you don’t think this is a good idea? Well, once that kind of way of looking at it entered into the debate the old guard had to retreat and so here we come. By the time we got there, essentially the pragmatists, the realist, the adults had prevailed. We were all treated very well and had lots of co-operation and on the sidelines were a few grumbles.
I also inquired as to what memories Kyle retained from the production of the film,
Everyone were on pins and needles but one of the things about us coming there and actually it is one of the things that I hold dearest to my heart, is that once we came they could not go back and that has had a major impact especially on black people that live in the town, who had been suppressed, held back, kept in their place. This was 1968 but it had a little bit of a time capsule aspect to it, so their like ten to twenty years behind in terms of general attitudes, so black people are deferential, they say, “oh yes sir, oh yes this, oh no you first.” and all of these self-deprecating behaviors and that was the code, that was how things are done here, but they were not done like that anymore after we shot The Learning Tree because a new perspective was introduced – there was no way to get the toothpaste back into the tube.~~
Robert Mitchell would like to thank Kyle Johnson, Nicholas Eliopoulos for providing photos and EyeSore Cinema. Robert 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.