Anthology Film Archives


December 2 – December 11

A towering figure in twentieth century American culture, Gordon Parks (1912-2006) was a photographer, author, musician, and – not least of all – filmmaker. In a career that spanned over fifty years, he documented American life and culture with a focus on social justice, race relations, the civil rights movement, and the African-American experience.

Born into poverty and segregation in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks was drawn to photography as a young man. Despite his lack of professional training, he won the Julius Rosenwald Fellowship in 1942; this led to a position with the photography section of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) in Washington, D.C., and, later, the Office of War Information (OWI). By the mid-1940s, he was working as a freelance photographer for publications such as Vogue, Glamour, and Ebony. Parks was hired as staff photographer for Life magazine in 1948, where over two decades he created some of his most groundbreaking work. His versatility, and bold willingness to tackle different art forms, became clear early on, with the publication in 1964 of his semiautobiographical novel, “The Learning Tree”. The enormous success of his literary debut led to the opportunity, in 1969, to direct the Hollywood adaptation himself, making him the first Black filmmaker to helm a major studio feature, and leading to a pioneering cinematic career.

Parks would go on to make five further feature films, including the blaxploitation classic SHAFT (1971), the underrated THE SUPER COPS (1974), and the first film version of Solomon Northup’s slave narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave” (SOLOMON NORTHUP’S ODYSSEY, which forms a fascinating contrast with Steve McQueen’s 2013 adaptation), as well as a highly personal essay film, MOMENTS WITHOUT PROPER NAMES (1987).

“The World of Gordon Parks” is presented in collaboration with The Gordon Parks Foundation and Chicago Film Archives, as well as the Black Harvest Film Festival in Chicago, which will feature its own Gordon Parks retrospective as part of the festival in November. The series also coincides with the 50th anniversary of SHAFT; the release of a brand-new documentary about Parks, A CHOICE OF WEAPONS: INSPIRED BY GORDON PARKS (John Maggio, 2021); and the recent restorations and Blu-ray releases of MOMENTS WITHOUT PROPER NAMES (Kino Lorber) and THE LEARNING TREE (The Criterion Collection).

For additional information and online resources, visit the Chicago Film Archives’ Midwest Stories page and The Gordon Parks Foundation website.

Special thanks to Michal Raz-Russo & Peter W. Kunhardt, Jr. (Gordon Parks Foundation); Nancy Watrous & Yasmin Desouki (Chicago Film Archives); and Rebecca Fons (Black Harvest Film Festival); as well as to Emily Bates (Gladstone Gallery); Jennifer Bertani (WNET); Jack Durwood (Paramount); LaToya Ruby Frazier; Brittany D. Friesner (Indiana University Cinema); Harry Guerro; Kim Hendrickson & Lee Kline (Criterion Collection); Jonathan Hertzberg, Clemence Taillandier & Bret Wood (Kino Lorber, Inc.); Seth J. Kittay (All Channel Films, Inc.); Kristie Nakamura (WB); Rachael Stoeltje & Carmel Curtis (Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive); and Katie Trainor (MoMA).

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