THE LEARNING TREE (1969)

  • Director: Gordon Parks
  • Writer: Gordon Parks, based on his novel
  • Starring: Kyle Johnson, Alex Clarke, Estelle Evans, Mira Waters, George Mitchell, Richard Ward, Malcolm Atterbury, Russell Thorson, Zooey Hall, Dana Elcar, Felix Nelson, and Joel Fluellen
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video or YouTube

The claim to fame today of The Learning Tree is that it was the first movie directed by an African-American for a major studio, in this case Gordon Parks for Warner Bros. That it is from an earlier era than some other art by Black people about their own experience gives it a different feel from almost any other film of vaguely similar subject matter that I’ve seen. I’ve watched a good number of dramas over the years where the themes included race relations in America, and none of them come at the issue from quite this perspective, or, to my surprise, this level of complexity. Yet, from a production perspective, it seems almost of an earlier era than its 1969 release date. Though this movie is in color, there is little difference stylistically in direction or performances from a 1950s Western, or, say, To Kill a Mockingbird from 1962. Which makes the very frank discussions of many of the themes almost jarring, because this doesn’t feel like the sort of movie that would talk about this stuff or have this amount of nuance.

Gordon Parks had been an acclaimed still photographer for a few decades by the time he ended up in Hollywood, originally directing documentaries about the inner city for an early forerunner of PBS. Around the same time, he wrote a semi-autobiographical novel based on his own childhood growing up in the small town of Fort Scott, Kansas. As he already had directing experience, Warner Bros. agreed to allow Parks to helm the movie adaptation of his book, launching a successful second career. He also wrote the screenplay, produced the film, and composed the score. The Learning Tree was acclaimed by critics upon its release but did not attract huge box office or other attention at the time, but has remained in the movie zeitgeist over the years in a way that I don’t think it would have if it was just historic and not, you know, pretty good. Parks’ next movie then turned out to be Shaft, which was a major hit and still part of the cultural landscape.

The fact that the story of the movie is based fairly directly on Parks’ own life leads to what I see as the movie’s biggest strength, its specificity. It follows the story of a teenage boy, Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson, the son of Star Trek star Nichelle Nichols), as he comes of age in a fictional small town in 1920s Kansas. His world feels in some ways similar to that seen in the mid-century Deep South of many Hollywood movies, but in other ways very different. There is a lot of non-belligerent crossover between the worlds of white people and Black people, far moreso than you usually see in modern Hollywood movies about racism. There is one, seemingly minor scene where a local rich white kid, Chauncey (Zooey Hall), invites Newt and his girlfriend Arcella (Mira Waters) to have a coke at the corner pharmacy. They follow him in only to realize that they’re the only Black people in there. The waiter seems surprised, but brings them the cokes, then points out they’ll have to drink them outside. Both Chauncey (whose motivation seems more personal pride about how his guests are being insulted than genuine altruism) and a couple of other white patrons stand up to the waiter. One says “leave them alone, you slob!” Hardly a hard-hitting insult, but it’s more than any random white townsperson in The Help would have done.

But Newt’s seemingly idyllic childhood is derailed both by what we might today call “institutional racism.” He starts the movie part of a group of five friends, and by the end of the movie two of them have been shot by the cops while running away (in this case “the cops” is the one local, overweight policeman, played by Dana Elcar, who spends the rest of the movie sweating profusely through his shirt and feeling annoyed that he has to do anything). His “first love,” the beautiful, innocent Arcella, is raped by Chauncey (it turns out his motivation for buying them cokes was to size her up) when Newt stays after school to argue with his teacher about a grade. She and her family move away shortly thereafter. That teacher, meanwhile, who teaches Newt as part of a mixed-race class, tells him that he shouldn’t go into a college-prep track because “very few negro students go to college, and those that do just end up as porters or maids anyway.” Newt, furious, tells her that “all the colored students hate you,” and she takes him to the principal’s office. Hearing what happened, the principal asks the teacher who told her it was OK to say that to a kid and she replies that it was the principal that had the job before him. The principal sends the teacher away, encourages Newt to go to college, and opines that one of these days they’ll let him integrate the school sports teams.

The climax of the movies sort of out of nowhere, after Newt witnesses the murder of his farmer employer while taking a lunch break by a local Black man, Booker (Richard Ward), after the farmer catches the man stealing his booze. Due to the circumstances surrounding the crime, a local white man, Silas (Malcolm Atterbury), is arrested and put on trial. Initially, Newt keeps quiet because he is worried that revealing the farmer was killed by a Black man might touch off racial violence, but when he confides in his mother (Estelle Evans), she takes him to the local judge (Russell Thorson), a white man she trusts, and Newt ends up telling the truth in court. When he does, the courtroom erupts in calls to lynch Booker. Panicked, Booker grabs the cop’s gun, runs off, and shoots himself. The Judge then scolds all those who called for the lynching, saying “you pulled the trigger” and “I hope this day lives on in your minds.” After telling Newt he did the right thing, his mother collapses and dies (we have received vague intimations she is not well throughout, not the sort of thing that happens when characters are going to survive the movie). The movie ends with Newt moving “north,” where he plans to go to college.

I don’t know if anything quite so dramatic as these events ever happened to the real-life Gordon Parks, but it all rings true, somehow. Newt is a character learning lessons about life, love, and the nature of justice, but those lessons are not as clear-cut as we might want to imagine. Did he actually do the right thing in telling the truth about the murder? He is clearly not sure, and the movie is not, either. This all contrasts with the open, Kansas setting, which gives the entire proceedings the feel of a somewhat mainstream Western of a slightly earlier era. In one scene, Newt sort hypothetically asks his older brother what might happen if the farmer had been killed by a Black man, in which the brother says there might be violence, as occurred in another nearby town some years before. But while he’s talking about lynching, the two of them are out on the prairie sitting on horses. I has never heard of The Learning Tree before reading the Slate Black FIlm Canon from 2019, but I found it a worthy addition to Movie Valhalla, and would definitely recommend it to people interested in movies about race relations, far moreso than some more modern entries (I’m looking at you, Green Book) on the same themes.

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