Blu-ray Review: The Learning Tree

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Gordon Parks | CAST: Kyle Johnson, Alex Clarke, Estelle Evans, Dana Elcar, Mira Waters, Joel Fluellen, Malcolm Atterbury, Richard Ward, Dub Taylor
RELEASE DATE: 12/14/21 | PRICE: DVD $21.99, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: New documentary on the making of the film; new conversation between artist Hank Willis Thomas and art historian Deborah Willis; a featurette with Parks on location for the film; “My Father: Gordon Parks,” a documentary made on-set; two 1968 films on which Parks played creative roles.
SPECS: NR | 107 mins | Drama | 2:35 | monaural

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Master photographer and author Gordon Parks served in several roles in 1969’s The Learning Tree, a coming of age story that harkens back to old Hollywood melodramas and anticipates black family sagas that began to appear in the 1970s on both TV and in the movies. Parks produced, directed, scripted and wrote the music for this feature, which was the first major studio production helmed by an African-American.

The script, based on an autobiographical novel by Parks, revolves around Newt (Kyle Johnson), a teen boy living in rural Kansas in the 1920s. Newt experiences a number of dramatic situations, from surviving a deadly tornado to witnessing a murder. The sequences in The Learning Tree that stay with one the longest, however, are the placid ones where Parks shows the daily life of the black community – as with an early scene set at a community picnic.

So, while the film has its share of highly emotional moments, in which our hero and his teenage friends (and nemesis) experience or see racism, beatings, rape and murder, the scenes that land most perfectly are the ones in which silent heartaches are depicted. The best example of this is the sudden conclusion of a subplot in which Newt gets his first girlfriend and quietly loses her.

While the plot might be a bit bumpy, the visuals are uniformly gorgeous — and look even more gorgeous in the 2K digital restoration by Criterion. Parks’ eye for intriguing and emotional imagery is present throughout the film but is at its finest, again, when the plot machinations have slowed down. The great cinematographer Burnett Guffey — who shot some perfect noirs (My Name Is Julia Ross, In a Lonely Place) and was an Oscar winner for From Here to Eternity and Bonnie and Clyde – worked quite well in tandem with Parks, with both men putting their unmistakable stamp on the film. Guffey is seen in a short behind-the-scenes film saying that he asked to do the picture because he was familiar with Parks’ photography and felt he could learn a lot from him.

The film received great reviews but wasn’t a box-office smash — thus Parks turning to crafting a blaxploitation opus for his next major-studio film, the landmark Shaft (1971). As it stands, Learning Tree is quite good but lacks a bravura performance — the adult cast members are all excellent, but the teens performers range from fiery (Alex Clark) to tepid (Johnson).

The film and Parks’ other work are explored in the supplements contained in the package. Two 1968 documentaries made for NET (National Educational Television) are revelatory, in that they show bleak subject matter communicated primarily through Parks’ imagery. The first of the two, “Diary of a Harlem Family,” was crafted out of Parks’ emotional photos of a poverty-stricken family living in a slum apartment building. The family exists in a desperate situation, and Parks’ narration, which includes quotes from members of the family, is incredibly moving. The family is locked in a cycle of violence and poverty until a rupture occurs, when the mother burns her abusive husband’s face with a boiling mixture of honey and sugar. (Parks accompanied the family to the hospital where the husband was subsequently treated.)

“The World of Piri Thomas” (1968) is an utterly fascinating time capsule of Spanish Harlem in NYC in the late Sixties. The film follows poet Piri Thomas, who reads his work as we see him powerfully acting out some of it amid stunning images of the neighborhood — which were the scenes Parks shot and appears to have edited.

One montage of brief images set to the drum-beat of a man hitting a garbage-can lid is a terrific blending of the beautiful and dilapidated aspects of Spanish Harlem. Most jarring is the notion that public television aired this documentary, which includes graphic images of junkies shooting up and Thomas expressing his frustration with various situations by exclaiming “coño!” (a Latino curse word, which would surely be muted these days on PBS).

The short film, “My Father: Gordon Parks” (1969) is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the making of The Learning Tree narrated by Gordon Parks, Jr., who worked on the set as a still photographer. He discusses his father’s perfectionism, as we see the senior Parks giving very detailed descriptions of behavior and language to his actors. Also noted is the fact that the film was a sort of “trial by fire” for Parks as the first black director to make a film for a major studio, and that Parks was intent on hiring as many blacks for the crew as he could.

A featurette about the film made for this release probes different aspects of the picture. The great cinematographer Ernest Dickerson discusses how audiences in the Sixties were “hungry” for black images onscreen and how The Learning Tree was very unique in this regard. He also sings the praises of Parks as a maker of indelible images, and of Burnett Guffey, whom he notes was a master at shooting noirs. He notes that Guffey’s lighting expertise is present throughout the film, especially in a carefully lit scene that shows Newt talking to his aged mother as they walk down a country road on a sunny afternoon.

Critic Nelson George compares the images in the film to those in Parks’ photography, noting that in both media Parks was interested in spotlighting “people in reflection” who are shown thinking about something. Filmmaker Ina Diane Archer also talks about the film’s imagery, comparing it to real home movies from the 1920s shot in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by the Rev. Solomon Sir Jones. Archer emphasizes that both Parks and Jones showed black communities in various daily situations, all of which reinforced the normality of the communities.

Art historian Deborah Willis and her son, artist Hank Willis Thomas, discuss in another featurette made for this package how Parks influenced their work. A friend of Parks, Willis talks about him as an artist and as a man — most enjoyable, though, is her mention of Parks as a cowboy. “He understood what it meant to be a black cowboy,” says Willis. “He owned that horse and he owned that [cowboy] hat.”

The pair also talk about Parks’ youth in Kansas, which brings up the subject of the “Exodusters,” the black farmers who moved in 1879 to Kansas from Louisiana, Mississippi, and other Southern states.

Most intriguing of all, though, is Thomas noting that, as The Learning Tree begins with a tornado battering Newt’s home town, the film is “Parks’ spin on The Wizard of Oz.” A fun theory, as Parks’ storm scene is shot in a manner familiar from the 1939 movie classic, but the lack of fantasy in the rest of the film (except for one nightmare Newt has) makes Learning Tree a very different creation than Wizard.

Buy or Rent The Learning Tree

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”