Gordon Parks was already a renowned photojournalist when he first stepped behind a movie camera. He worked for Lifemagazine from 1948 to 1968, yet within a few years of switching to motion pictures in the late '60s, Parks had established himself as one of the most influential American moviemakers.
Parks, in his mid-fifties when he took up filmmaking, had three short subjects under his belt when made his feature debut in 1969 with The Learning Tree, an unassuming adaptation of his autobiographical novel about growing up black in rural Kansas, where he was born in 1912. Parks wrote, produced, directed, and scored the picture, one of the first 25 movies designated for inclusion in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as "culturally, historically, or esthetically significant."
It was Parks' second effort, however, that set the standard for a whole new era in American moviemaking. Parks didn't exactly invent the "blaxploitation" genre with his 1971 release Shaft, but he probably did more than any other individual to transform such films from a mere blip on the cultural radar screen into a decadelong phenomenon, the influence of which is still being felt. The Samuel L. Jackson character in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, for example, is an updated version of the archetypal blaxploitation hero (or antihero), and Pam Grier's character in Tarantino's Jackie Brown (which also featured Jackson) is a reminder of her days as the queen of blaxploitation in such pictures as Coffy, Foxy Brown, and Sheba Baby.
Three of Parks' landmark movies will be shown this week in a Gordon Parks Film Retrospective at the Kravis Center For the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, which is being held in conjunction with "Half Past Autumn: The Art of Gordon Parks," a comprehensive overview of Parks' career on view through December 26 at West Palm's Norton Museum of Art.
The show focuses on Parks' work as a photographer, writer, and composer, while the mini film fest concentrates on his limited but important foray into movies. Shaft followed hot on the heels of the two early '70s pictures usually credited with launching blaxploitation filmmaking: the amiable Cotton Comes to Harlem (1970), directed by actor Ossie Davis, and Melvin Van Peebles' inflammatory Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song (1971). But it was Parks who brought the genre from the fringes into the mainstream with Shaft, an enormous hit for MGM that prompted two sequels (one directed by Parks) and a TV series.
Suddenly at least a few aspiring black filmmakers had an outlet for years' worth of pent-up creativity and anger at having been excluded by Hollywood for so long. Never mind that many blaxploitation flicks shamelessly mined racial stereotypes even as they raked in the bucks from largely black audiences. Many in those audiences were just glad to see so much black talent on the big screen. The remainder of the '70s saw the release of more than 200 movies with major black characters and themes, including 1972's controversial Superfly, a startlingly sympathetic portrait of a drug dealer directed by Gordon Parks, Jr., who died in a plane crash in 1979 at the age of 44 while scouting locations for a project.
After directing and scoring Shaft's Big Score! in 1972, Parks Sr. changed course again, directing the action movie The Super Cops in 1974. Two years later he made the critically acclaimed Leadbelly, a screen biography of legendary blues singer and guitarist Huddie Ledbetter, who spent a considerable chunk of his life in prison.
Although Parks made only a handful of movies in a multifaceted career spanning more than half a century, he has had a disproportionate influence as a filmmaker. Just as Jackie Robinson paved the way for black baseball players, Parks' legacy lives on in the works of black moviemakers as varied as Spike Lee, John Singleton, Bill Duke, Robert Townsend, and Keenen Ivory Wayans, whose I'm Gonna Git You Sucka was a hilarious but affectionate sendup of the sort of pictures Parks helped popularize.