The Learning Tree (1969)

GORDON PARKS

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB

USA, 1969. . Screenplay by Gordon Parks, based on his novel. Cinematography by . Produced by Gordon Parks. Music by Gordon Parks. Production Design by . Costume Design by , , , . Film Editing by .

Gordon Parks makes his directorial debut, the first African American director of a studio film, adapting his own semiautobiographical novel. The story’s reminiscences of growing up in a tensely integrated Kansas town are at turns warm and darkly disturbing, beginning with an incident that sets protagonist Newt apart from his friend Marcus after they and their friends, all of them black, get in trouble for stealing apples from a white neighbour’s orchard. Marcus, who comes from an unhappy home with a mostly absent single father, is sent to prison for beating up the incensed neighbour, while Newt, whose parents keep a sharp eye on him and insist on his growing up properly mannered and respectful, makes amends. The picaresque narrative progresses as we see Newt doing his best to stay out of trouble in a place where the racial tension is thick enough to cut with a knife, a place where the schools are integrated but the café still doesn’t allow black customers to sit inside. He first endures the tragedy of the girl he loves being seduced by the rich judge’s spoiled and irresponsible son, then later witnesses a murder and it challenges his own loyalty to his community considering that his testimony could possibly bring reprisals on his friends and family. The performances are exceptionally good and Parks weaves a tapestry of characters and events that make for a bewitching, compelling soap opera that never falters in dramatic intensity.

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