Gordon Parks’ HBO documentary only gives us half the picture – The Undefeated

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It’s easy to forget the power of the still image these days. Our lives are drenched in video streaming from tiny isolating screens, reprogramming us to crave constant movement and stimulation. The overwhelming volume and speed of these videos makes it difficult to slow down, stop, and examine the deepest truths of modern life.

That’s why the new documentary A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks is so essential. Premiering Monday on HBO, the film examines the enormous impact of Parks photography on American society, how he moved into making films that broke barriers, and why his method of integrating with his subjects animates the work of three important black photographers today: Devin Allen, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Jamel shabazz.

Born in Kansas in 1912, Parks experienced some of the harshest aspects of American racism, seeing friends killed by the police as a child and being told that black college students weren’t smart enough to go to school. university. Parks was the youngest of 15 children, and after the death of his mother he was left homeless at the age of 15. Over the next 10 years he wandered around various cities, working as a railroad porter, busser, brothel pianist, semi-pro basketball player. then photographer.

From Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to gang leaders and ordinary people, Gordon Parks’ images were the first time most whites saw black life through a black lens.

Gordon Parks / The Gordon Parks Foundation / HBO

“I may have turned to the gun or the knife for survival, but then I chose the camera,” Parks said in archive footage from the film. (He died in 2006 at the age of 93.) “Photography was a way I could explore my own feelings about racism in America, about the underdog, and somehow, I could transcend my own experience. “

Documentary director John Maggio guides us through the period when Parks developed his skills as a portrait photographer for black high society in the 1930s and early 1940s, then honed his journalistic eye while working for the Federal Farm Security Administration, which sent photographers to spend weeks or months on site documenting social conditions. That’s when Parks met Ella Watson, who was cleaning the government building in Washington where they both worked. His photographs of Watson doing his job led to the iconic image of 1942 american gothic: Watson posed with his broom and mop in front of an American flag, a life of unrewarded struggle etched on his skinny face.

Parks continued to photograph Watson at her home, which taught her that in order to truly capture a person’s humanity, he couldn’t just show up and start clicking. He had to spend time with them to bring out the larger meanings Parks was recognizing from his own experiences. This revelation led to his groundbreaking work as the first black photographer for Life magazine, one of the most influential publications of the mid-1920se-american century. From Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to gang leaders and ordinary people, Parks’ footage was the first time most whites saw black life through a black lens. It was a change of context that helped propel the freedom movement of the 1960s.

This is the common thread that links the three current photographers to Parks. Allen is a Baltimore resident who, while trying to figure out how to become a photographer, pored over Parks’ books in the library. When Freddie Gray was killed in the back of a police van in 2015, Allen took to the streets with his camera, producing a series of vivid images of historic protests and riots. One ended up on the cover of Time magazine – a lone black figure fleeing from a police horde, capturing the moment and the mood in a way that forces the viewer to stop and think about how the past remains present. It’s an example of how a frozen moment can reveal more than several minutes of video, and how photographs can fight injustice by capturing images that are, as Parks intended, at the same time. both “a document and a symbol”.

“For the first time, I understood what Gordon was talking about, that the camera is a real weapon,” Allen said in the film. “And I realized how powerful I am with a camera in my hand.”

Ella Watson, a cleaning lady employed in a federal office building in Washington, stands in front of an American flag with her mop and broom in a pose reminiscent of Grant Wood. american gothic. Gordon Parks documented Watson’s daily life for the Farm Security Administration in 1942.

Corbis via Getty Images

Frazier did the same type of work in Flint, Michigan when he faced the crisis of a poisoned public water system. Shabazz, known for his portraits of people on the streets of his hometown of New York, has encrusted himself in Rikers Island prison to reveal his inhumanity. The film devotes considerable time to the work of this next generation. To see them bring a grace and a humanity still questioned by too much of white America is to understand that when it comes to creating a plan to illuminate black lives, Parks is as essential as he is. ‘a Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison (with whom Parks collaborated to create the legendary photo series Invisible Man) or Sidney Poitier.

Ironically, the film could do more to enlighten Parks as a person. We learn that his work has been informed by his resistance to racism, through archival footage of Parks and interviews with art experts and leading names such as Bryan Stevenson, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee and Kareem Abdul. -Jabbar. We are told that he has written novels, non-fiction, poetry, and composed orchestral and pop music. Maggio portrayed Parks as the epitome of the debonair – bespoke suits, polished wooden pipes, grand pianos, horse rides, ascots. If you close your eyes, Parks’s voice could be from a white man.

But halfway through, I wondered: shouldn’t there be another side of Parks? Has he ever married or had children? What was her personality like – cranky, funny, loud, demanding? “I live off my emotions, maybe. And so I turned my emotions into something mercenary, through which I could survive, ”Parks said in the film. What were these emotions other than resistance? A choice of weapons does not say, although several longtime friends of Parks are interviewed, as well as one of his five children and one of his three ex-wives.

Ex-wife Genevieve Young gives one of Parks’ most frustrating glimpses, during the section devoted to her directorial career. In 1969, Parks became the first black to direct a major studio feature film, The learning tree, based on his semi-autobiographical novel. He continued in 1971 by directing Tree, a huge success credited with helping to create the genre of blaxploitation. The documentary describes how revolutionary it was to see a character like Detective John Shaft onscreen: an aggressive, streetwear, leather-clad black man who cursed white cops and put a white chick in his shower.

Devin Allen of Baltimore is a photographer influenced by the work of Gordon Parks. “For the first time, I understood what Gordon was talking about, that the camera is a real weapon,” Allen said in the film.

HBO

“He was Gordon’s other personality,” Young said. It’s a startling revelation – such a smooth toffee hid an ebony playboy armed with a gun. Why not explore how this character influenced his art? Another punch is fired when Anderson Cooper, son of heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, opens up about his mother’s long-standing “friendship” with Parks. They were more than friends – they were in a relationship. Why dance around this romance?

Maggio and the producers, including musician Alicia Keys and her husband Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, must have their reasons for these omissions. The movie quickly advances to an hour and 29 minutes, so another 10 minutes wouldn’t have hurt. Perhaps they felt that his personality was covered in other projects because Parks was often written and filmed during his lifetime. But here it in some ways reduces Parks to the sum total of the racism he suffered.

At the start of the film, Stevenson says, “To understand the weight that people of color felt in these spaces, where you basically had to be two people, one person around white people who would protect you and another person with your family, I think him. gave an overview of the Blacks story.

Clearly, as a black man who worked his way through the highest echelons of Manhattan society before the civil rights movement, seeking to open the eyes of his employers and America to the realities of black life, Parks has developed a personality for these spaces. I wish we could see the other side of Parks, in order to understand even deeper truths about his extraordinary art.

Jesse Washington is a senior screenwriter for The Undefeated. You can find him doing things to guys at a basketball court near you.



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