Better known today for directing the cult classic Shaft (1971) – which helped to usher in the Blaxploitation genre – Gordon Parks was a man of many talents. Outside of directing, he was also an acclaimed photojournalist, artist, composer and novelist. For his first feature film – which was also the first time a Black American director made a Hollywood studio film – he turned to his early days in Kansas with The Learning Tree. Previously released on MOD DVD by Warner Bros. through their Warner Archive line, Criterion has given the movie its Blu-ray debut.
The Production: 4.5/5
In the southeastern Kansas town of Cherokee Flats in the 1920’s, Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson) is a young Black teenager starting to come of age. Over the course of a year, he starts to learn more about the world around him through a bittersweet first love and finding his way through systems – educational and legal – riddled with injustices and racism. His journey parallels – although not always reflective – that of his close friend Marcus, whose shocking act of violence forces Newt to make a decision that will test their friendship to the breaking point.
With The Learning Tree, Gordon Parks made his debut in cinema by touching upon his own past. Wearing many hats here – as director, producer, composer and screenwriter (adapting from his own novel) – Parks fashioned a story that’s both nostalgic about the past while never turning a blind eye to the real life prejudices he and his characters faced; another movie that can approach this kind of clear eyed and realistic nostalgia – albeit in different terms – is Robert Benton’s Places in the Heart (1984). Parks clearly shows off his greatest strengths here are the fact that the film stays true to its source material – albeit with a few characters from the novel trimmed for time – as well as the movie is beautifully filmed by the great cinematographer Burnett Guffey; Parks’ hometown of Fort Scott is used to great effect, with several of the townspeople taking part as extras in scenes involving the traveling circus as well as the climactic trial. There really is not much to complain or find fault with here, although scenes involving very choice language and prejudices may be jarring for modern viewers not accustomed to seeing them in the movies. Despite that, The Learning Tree is still one of best debut features of a filmmaker – one who used his many talents to show the rites of passage into black manhood, something that Hollywood had rarely touched upon until this movie.
Picked by Parks to be his on-screen surrogate, Kyle Johnson is absolutely convincing as Newt, the boy who learns about the facts of life through trials and tribulations; it’s his best known role. Estelle Evans has the second-best role in the movie as Newt’s mother, who helps to guide him in his formidable years; Mira Waters is also notable as Newt’s first love whose relationship ends bittersweetly. As Newt’s friend whose parallel story takes a different path, Alex Clarke stands out as Marcus; Richard Ward makes a memorable impression as Marcus’ drunken father Booker. Rounding out the cast are George Mitchell as farmer Jake Kiner, Hope Summers as his wife, Malcolm Atterbury as farm laborer Silas Newhall, Russell Thorson as Judge Cavanaugh, Zooey Hall as Chauncey, who betrays Newt when he impregnates his girlfriend by rape, Dana Elcar as the prejudiced Sheriff Kirky, Carole Lamond as Big Mabel (who gives Newt his first taste of manhood at the beginning of the film), jazz and blues singer Jimmy Rushing as Chappie Logan, Peggy Rea as schoolteacher Miss McClintock and Joel Fluellen as Newt’s blind Uncle Rob.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 2:35:1 aspect ratio, taken from a brand new 2K digital restoration done for this release. Film grain is organic, with color palette and fine details given a faithful representation; there’s little in terms of problems like dirt, dust, scratches, tears or fading present here. This release does full justice to Burnett Guffey’s amazing cinematography and is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a PCM soundtrack for this release. Dialogue is strong and clear with sound mix and Gordon Parks’ score also given a faithful representation and presentation as well. There’s little to no problems like distortion, crackling, popping or hissing present, which means that this release is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video.
Special Features: 4.5/5
Revisiting The Learning Tree (29:20) – In this new documentary, the making of the movie as well as its artistic merits are put under the microscope; dissecting the movie here are curator Rhea L. Combs, filmmakers Ina Diane Archer, Ernest Dickerson and Nelson George.
Gordon Parks: Artist and Activist (17:58) – For this new featurette, the influence of Parks on art in general is looked at in this conversation between artist Hank Willis Thomas and art historian Deborah Willis, moderated by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie.
The Moviemakers (7:19) – A short featurette showing the behind-the-scenes work on the movie, featuring interviews with Parks and cinematographer Burnett Guffey.
My Father: Gordon Parks (27:15) – The 1969 short documentary, made on the set of the movie and narrated by Gordon Parks Jr. Featuring interviews with Parks, Estelle Evans, Kyle Johnson, Mira Waters and Guffey.
Diary of a Harlem Family (20:17) & The World of Piri Thomas (59:30) – These two short films from 1968 – which Parks worked on in creative roles – showcase the struggles of a Black family in New York and the Afro-Latino writer and poet, respectively. The films are preceded by a playable introduction by Combs and George (8:35).
Theatrical Trailer (4:01)
Booklet feat. Parks’ 1963 Life magazine photo essay How It Feels to Be Black featuring excerpts from his novel and an excerpt from the director’s 2005 book A Hungry Heart: A Memoir
Finding some critical acclaim upon initial release – and later one of the first 25 movies to be selected for preservation in the National Film Registry – The Learning Tree is a bittersweet, idyllic and truly personal work of Gordon Parks, one of America’s true renaissance men of the 20th Century. Criterion has done the film justice in its Blu-ray release, with a terrific HD transfer and a wealth of special features delving into the film and the man behind it. One of the label’s best releases of 2021 is very highly recommended and worth upgrading from the MOD DVD.
Amazon.com: The Learning Tree (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray] : Kyle Johnson, Alex Clarke, Estelle Evans, Dana Elcar, Mira Waters, Joel Fluellen, Malcolm Atterbury, Richard Ward, Russell Thorson, Peggy Rea, Gordon Parks: Movies & TV
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