Not many films have been made in the corner of America I grew up in. But one very talented man, Gordon Parks, was born and raised not half an hour from my hometown, and 40-some years later returned to make a film there. My mother, in her capacity as a news reporter, covered a couple of events at the Gordon Parks Museum, and was even able to meet him. On at least one of these trips, my father went along, and spoke to Parks; reputedly, he said that, although he liked Shaft, he preferred The Learning Tree.
That makes sense, since The Learning Tree was based on his novel, which in turn was based on his youth in southeast Kansas. I had known about both for some years–in fact, on one of my mother’s trips to the museum, I went along, and saw Kyle Johnson–the star of the film, playing Parks’ surrogate–talk about his memories of the film. (Unfortunately, I don’t recall any specifics.) We also saw a clip of the film, covering the opening scenes where the teenage protagonist, caught in a storm, finds himself taking shelter with Big Mabel (Carol Lamond). I was informed that she seduces Newt in this scene; I think, because the clip was pan-and-scan (the original film being shot in ‘Scope), it was hard to tell what was happening…and the gauzy, stylized approach to the sequence didn’t help.
Anyway, a decade or so later, I finally sat down to see the whole thing.
Spoilers; TW racism.
There’s not a great deal of plot; it focuses on a year or so in the life of 14-15-year-old Newton Winger (Johnson), coming of age in a small Kansas town. Life has its ups and downs; he falls in love with Arcela (Mira Waters), but she has an affair with Chauncey (Zooey Hall), the louche son of the local judge, and when she becomes pregnant with his child, her family abruptly moves away. His friend Marcus (Alex Clarke) is sent to a reformatory for beating up Jake Kiner (George Mitchell), but his bitter awareness of his place in society (based solely on his race) only deepens his misanthropy…and his resentment of Newton.
Newton, for his part, resents his teacher’s racist discouragement and plans to leave Cherokee Flats (a fictional stand-in for Fort Scott), but his greatest challenge comes when he sees Kiner murdered by Marcus’ father Booker (Richard Ward), but Kiner’s recently fired drunken farmhand Silas (Malcolm Atterbury) is accused of the murder and is put on trial. Newton, fearing retaliation against the black population if he reveals Booker’s guilt, hesitates to come forward, but his mother Sarah (Estelle Evans) pushes him to, and he does–leading Booker to commit a desperate suicide in the courthouse. Marcus, having been released and working at a brothel run by Chappie Logan (James “Jimmy” Rushing), learns of this and finally sets out to get his revenge.He tracks down Newton–who has just come from his mother’s funeral (her health has been failing for much of the film)–and when the gun he has stolen from Chappie proves to be empty, they fight hand-to-hand; Newton gets the upper hand but spares Marcus’ life. However, when Kirky (Dana Elcar), the racist local lawman, arrives on the scene, he kills the fleeing Marcus–in the same spot where he earlier killed an innocent black man fleeing a crap game, and forced Newton and his friends to retrieve the body from a river. When he offers Newton a ride home, Newton replies “I can make it by myself.”
Although The Learning Tree has a significant place in history as the first studio film directed by an African-American, and even though it was one of the first 25 films inducted into the National Film Registry, it has since fallen into obscurity. It has less than 600 votes on the IMDb and only 8 user reviews (Shaft has 11,500 votes and 77 user reviews), and is only available on DVD through the Warner Archive, making it available but not readily (or cheaply) so. For such an important film, one does not hear or see much of it.
Unfortunately, that may be partially due to its objective quality. First, let’s consider the positives–The Learning Tree is often a very beautiful film. Cinematographer Burnett Guffey was just coming off an Oscar win for Bonnie and Clyde, while Parks was one of the most notable American photographers of the 20th century. Between them, they couldn’t help but make an attractive film, and many shots have a painterly quality to them: characters set against a setting sun, a nightmare where Newton encounters a corpse underwater, or the “eyes” on the wings of a butterfly dissolving to Marcus’ eyes. The use of color is subtle but effective.The period detail is generally excellent as well; Edward D. Engoron’s production design brings 20’s rural Kansas to life quite well, and Chappie’s brothel in particular impresses, with the dingy, raucous barroom and seedily over-lush rooms. The general flavor works as well; Dub Taylor, for example, has a welcome cameo as a carnival huckster who recruits Newton and co. to fight publicly (which Marcus uses as his first attempt to get revenge), and he perfectly evokes the crass showmanship of such a man. Likewise, Don Dubbins is convincingly awkward as Silas’ awkward public defender.
Parks’ direction is even at times stylized in a way which evokes films from an earlier era, and in one scene we see clips of a silent slapstick comedy Newton and Arcela go to see (well, they’re more interested in each other than the film, but you get my drift).
The film also has an interesting take on race relations of that time and place; much of the time, the blacks and whites of Cherokee Flats seem to get along pretty well, but at other times the ugliness of racism comes through in full force; Kirky’s dual killings, both unjustified by the circumstances (more relevant than ever right now) and Marcus’ pained rages against the system stand in raw contrast to the golden nostalgia we see elsewhere. Marcus berates a black priest who tries to comfort him and bemoans the fact that Jesus is shown to be white, that he must pray to a white man; in response, a hated guard rubs Jesus’ face with a pencil, giving Marcus a “black God”. Later, lamenting being called “boy” by Kirky despite his age, Booker says “They’d call Jesus ‘boy’ if he was black.” (Booker’s suicide, in fact, is motivated by the whites in the courtroom calling for his death before he can even testify; he steals Kirky’s gun and tries to escape, but cannot.)It’s also worth noting that Clarke (who reminds me of Kenan Thompson) gives a strong performance–in fact, I wish he had been the lead, but more on that later–putting across Marcus’ considerable anger and pain, and his long-simmering hatred of Newton which seemingly grows from his realization that the good-natured Newton is better liked than he. The performances are generally solid if unexceptional; Evans won an Image Award, and she’s good, but my favorite performance is probably Rushing’s. A noted jazz singer (he gets to sing in the film), he has a distinctive, authentic presence; you believe Chappie wants to help keep Marcus out of trouble by giving him a job, but you also believe him when he tells Marcus to mind his own business about Chappie’s business.
But, as good as Parks is at capturing the flavor of the time and place, his storytelling falters. The film’s episodic nature allows it to encompass a good deal of territory, but it doesn’t make for compelling drama, and Newt’s coming-of-age isn’t all that different from any number of other bildungsromans. Part of the problem is Johnson’s performance, which is good when he needs to be quietly earnest, but rather wooden when he displays overt emotions. Too much of the time, he sounds stiff and unnatural, and compared to Clarke’s work, his performance is all the more underwhelming. Johnson isn’t terrible–Newton isn’t the most dynamic character to begin with–but he doesn’t help the film much either.
And because of the episodic nature of the film, it shifts tone frequently–in one instance, rather disconcertingly. After Marcus beats up Kiner and there’s a tense moment when he and Newton argue over whether it was justified, they decide to go swimming, and there’s a scene of them happily swimming in the river, with a score that can best be described as “jaunty” (Parks also wrote the score–he was an incredibly versatile man). The effect is rather bewildering, and when this abrupt shift is followed by a lengthy scene where the boys must retrieve the body from the river–a longer scene than any which preceded it–it further disconcerts the viewer.Characters sometimes come and go abruptly; Arcela, for example, leaves the film maybe 60% of the way through and is only mentioned once afterwards. The discouraging teacher is never mentioned again that I can recall, and the sympathetic principal (who himself seems to be a “good” white shifting the blame for racism onto “bad” whites) likewise disappears from the scene. And Big Mabel pops up at the start, makes a decided impression (though, how many of these coming-of-age films have an older woman who seems to exist mostly to take the virginity of teenage boys?*), and doesn’t make another notable appearance until the last act. The film’s sense of continuity is fairly rough, and it keeps the film from developing a natural flow.
(*The film’s approach to sexuality is also rather bizarre. First there’s the scene with Newton and Big Mabel, and a friend makes rather lewd enquiries about the encounter. Then we see Chauncey in bed with a nude young woman (we see her rear end). Beyond that, the film only occasionally touches on sex, and never again in such an explicit fashion. It starts out being fairly earthy and ends up being golden and family-friendly.)
The occasional heavy-handed message-making doesn’t help either. Newton’s mother in particular is heavy on the life lessons; I preferred the subtler character of blind Uncle Rob (Joel Fluellen), who suggests the colors he sees in his head (he lost his sight in accident) are far more vivid and beautiful than those in reality. I haven’t read Parks’ novel, but his script at times seems to assume a familiarity with the material, a familiarity which might explain some of the film’s narrative issues. (We also get a very 60s lyrical montage of Newton and Arcela’s love affair; it might be the most dated part of the film.)Ultimately, The Learning Tree is far from a bad film, but in the wake of so many similar (and many better) films, it commands interest more as a part of history than as a noteworthy piece of cinema. That said, between its place in history, its recreation of the period, its cinematography, and the strong scenes which pop up throughout (especially those involving Marcus), it’s definitely worth seeing. But the book is probably the more rewarding experience.