Film - The Gordon Parks Foundation

Parks filming The Learning Tree, 1968.

Among his many accomplishments, Gordon Parks had a groundbreaking career in film—as director, screenwriter, producer, and composer. In 1969, encouraged by acclaimed film director and friend John Cassavettes, Parks became the first African American to write and direct a major Hollywood studio feature film, The Learning Tree, based on his bestselling semiautobiographical novel. His next directorial endeavor, Shaft (1971) helped define a genre then referred to as blaxploitation films. Over 25 years, Parks’s career in film encompassed documentaries, blockbuster Hollywood films, and bio-pics such as Leadbelly and Solomon Northup’s Odyssey depicting the lives of significant Black Americans.


*Flávio, 1964

*Diary of a Harlem Family, 1968

*The World of Piri Thomas, 1968

*The Learning Tree, 1969

Read more about the films below.

*Shaft, 1971

*Shaft’s Big Score!, 1972

*The Super Cops, 1974

*Leadbelly, 1976

*Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, 1984

*Moments Without Proper Names, 1987

*Martin, 1990


The Learning Tree - movie poster, 1969

The Learning Tree - promotional poster, 1969

Shaft - movie poster, 1971

Shaft - promotional image, 1971

Shaft - movie poster, 1971 (Japanese Release)

Shaft - movie poster, 1971 (Serbian Release)

Shaft's Big Score - movie poster, 1972

Shaft's Big Score - movie poster, 1972 (Italian Release)

The Super Cops - movie poster, 1974

Leadbelly - movie poster, 1976


12:00 min.
Director and writer: Gordon Parks

Parks’s career in film began as an extension of his photographic assignments. In 1961, Life magazine sent him to Brazil to document poverty in Rio de Janeiro. Told to photograph hardworking patriarchs of households in the city’s impoverished working-class neighborhoods known as favelas, Parks all but disregarded these instructions and turned his attention instead to one resident in particular—an industrious, severely asthmatic twelve-year-old named Flávio da Silva who lived in the Catacumba favela. Having himself grown up in poverty in Kansas, Parks felt deep sympathy for his subject and forged an emotional bond with the boy. Over the course of several weeks Parks photographed and filmed Flávio’s daily life as he performed household chores, cared for his seven siblings, and battled debilitating asthma attacks. The story was published as a twelve-page photo essay titled “Freedom’s Fearful Foe: Poverty” in the June 16, 1961, issue of Life, and the film was produced a few years later. Moved by Parks’s heartbreaking coverage, Life readers donated money to support the da Silva family, and the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital (CARIH) in Denver offered free treatment for Flávio. Parks returned to Rio in the summer of 1961 to help relocate the da Silva family and bring Flávio to the United States, where he lived for two years while receiving treatment. In spite of his wish to remain in the United States, he was sent back to Brazil in 1963. Although Parks maintained contact with Flávio in the decades that followed, he found that his subject’s struggles never abated. He later reflected, “As a photojournalist I have on occasion done stories that have seriously altered human lives. In hindsight, I sometimes wonder if it may not have been wiser to have left those lives untouched, to have let them grind out their time as fate intended.”

Diary of a Harlem Family
20:00 min.
Director: Joseph Filipowic
Photographer and narrator: Gordon Parks

Like Flavio, this film grew out of one of Parks’s Life magazine assignments. For the March 8, 1968, issue on race and poverty, Parks chose to document the daily struggles of an impoverished Harlem family, the Fontenelles. He spent a month photographing British West Indies immigrant Norman Fontenelle, Sr., his wife, Bessie, and their eight children, capturing the dignity they fought to maintain in the face of racism and dispossession. The result, a photo essay titled “The Cycle of Despair”,” was a searing portrait of poverty in America. The experience of getting to know the Fontenelle family compelled Parks to write an introductory text for the article and later to create a short film that aired on public television. Diary of a Harlem Family was constructed from Parks’s photographs, new film footage, and his narration. In the opening scene, Parks, seated next to Norman Fontenelle, Sr., gives an impassioned plea: “This is a story of a Black man. His name is Norman Fontenelle, and this is his Harlem apartment. What he wants, what he is, what you force him to be, is what you are. For he is you, staring back through a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom.”

The World of Piri Thomas
1968, NET Journal (National Educational Television), Episode 175
60:00 min.
Director: Gordon Parks
Additional photography by Dan Drasin, Paul Glicksberg, Gordon Parks, Jr., and Frank Simon

Originally aired as an episode of the public television series NET Journal, the film chronicles daily life in Spanish Harlem through the perspective—and writings—of Puerto Rican-Cuban writer and poet Piri Thomas (1928–2011). The film is based largely on Thomas’s bestselling memoir Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967. The book—briefly banned by some schools and libraries in the early 1970s for its graphic descriptions, but later considered required reading by others—candidly relates his impoverished childhood and ongoing encounters with racism, homelessness, violence, crime, and drug addiction. As the only dark-skinned child among seven children born to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father, Thomas frequently felt like an outsider in his family and community. These struggles are depicted by Parks through cinematic sequences that convey a life defined by a constant search for identity. As Thomas wrote in Down These Mean Streets, “I am ‘My Majesty Piri Thomas,’ with a high on anything like a stoned king . . . / I’m a skinny, dark-face, curly-haired, intense Porty-Ree-can— / Unsatisfied, hoping, and always reaching.”

The Learning Tree
107 min.
Director, writer, producer, and composer: Gordon Parks

In 1963, the same year that Gordon Parks photographed the March on Washington and the day-to-day activities of members of the Nation of Islam, he published his first novel—The Learning Tree. A semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story, the novel follows the journey of Newt Winger (played in the film by Mod Squad’s Kyle Johnson), a Black teenage descendant of Exodusters growing up in rural Kansas in the 1920s who learns through hard-won lessons how to navigate the injustices of systemic racism. The book’s title is derived from a cautionary word of advice given to Parks by his mother when he departed his hometown of Fort Scott, Kansas. It is later recounted in the book by Sarah Winger, Newt’s mother, during a long evening walk: “Some of the people are good and some of them are bad—just like the fruit on a tree…. No matter if you go or stay, think of it like that until the day you die—let it be your learning’ tree.” Through the harsh realities and moral impasses encountered by the book’s characters, Parks had created a narrative that symbolically confronted Black life in America, brought to life via images and text, and six years later—as a film. In 1969, Parks further underscored The Learning Tree's deeply personal significance when he adapted the book to a film, serving as its writer, producer, and director. He was encouraged by acclaimed film director and friend, John Cassavettes, to undertake the project. Released in August 1969, The Learning Tree was the first film directed by a Black American for a major Hollywood film studio, Warner Brothers-Seven Arts. The film had a modest budget and wasn’t a commercial success, but it was a landmark achievement in American cinema history.

100 min.
Director: Gordon Parks:
Writers: Ernest Tidyman and John D. F. Black
Producer: Joel Freeman

At a crucial time for the civil rights and Black Power movements, Gordon Parks made his best-known film, the groundbreaking blockbuster, Shaft, a film that helped launch the genre known as blaxploitation film. The film introduced a new kind of action hero aimed at Black audiences that transformed the industry: John Shaft (Richard Roundtree), a streetwise New York City private eye who is “as tough with criminals as he is tender with his lovers.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer originally envisioned the film with an all-white cast, but quickly realized there was that Black audiences yearned to see heroes that looked like them. After Shaft is recruited to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a Harlem mob boss from Italian gangsters, he finds himself in the middle of a rapidly escalating turf war between uptown vs. downtown Manhattan. The film’s iconic 1970s visuals and sound—from Roundtree’s leather fashions to the funk and soul score by Isaac Hayes (which won him an Academy Award, two Grammy Award, and a Golden Globe Award)—have remained influential to this day. Although Shaft and other blaxploitation films were faulted for perpetuating stereotypes, others hailed them for changing how Hollywood viewed African Americans on film. As Maurice Berger wrote in 2019, “[Parks] saw Shaft as a ‘fun’ film that could also inspire viewers of color. In the context of a movie industry that largely ignored them or trafficked in stereotypes, the film offered ‘a hero they hadn’t had before,’ as he later observed…. But in contrast to Hollywood’s emerging awareness of African-Americans—and the need to engage them to boost box office sales—Shaft was the culmination of Mr. Parks’s longstanding and multidimensional exploration of race, poverty and crime, providing yet another rich and empathetic view of a fraught and complicated nation.”

Shaft’s Big Score!
105 min.
Director and composer: Gordon Parks
Writer: Ernest Tidyman
Producer: Roger Lewis and Ernest Tidyman

The second in the Shaft film series, Shaft’s Big Score brought back Roundtree as detective John Shaft. This time, Shaft goes looking for the killer(s) of his good friend, but lands in the middle of a mob war. The film had a significantly larger budget than the original, which translated to higher production values and more impressive action-packed scenes than the original. Isaac Hayes, who scored the original film, did not return to work on Shaft’s Big Score!, but did contribute the song “Type Thang.” Parks, who by then was a composer in his own right, scored the film instead and wrote several original songs (including the theme song, “Blowin’ Your Mind”). While the sequel didn’t match the success of the original, it was still praised, as critic Roger Ebert wrote: “The quality shows. This time director Gordon Parks uses Panavision, surrounds his hero with a talented cast, and pours on the special effects."

The Super Cops
90 min.
Director: Gordon Parks
Based on The Super Cops: The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin by L. H. Whittemore, screenplay by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.
Producer: William Belasco

Based on the 1973 book The Super Cops: The True Story of the Cops Called Batman and Robin by L. H. Whittemore, this crime drama starred Ron Leibman and David Selby as real-life NYPD officers David Greenberg and Robert Hantz. The film follows the crime-busting police duo who, as the New York Times described it, “became known, not always fondly, as Batman and Robin because of their pow-bam-smash adventures fighting drug pushers in the streets of Bedford-Stuyvesant.” Although the film is punctuated by action scenes typical of the period, in the hands of Gordon Parks it also became a film about social justice.

126 min.
Director: Gordon Parks
Writer: Ernest Kinoy
Producer: Marc Merson and David Paradine

This biopic chronicled the life of influential American blues singer and guitarist, Huddie William Ledbetter, known by the stage name Leadbelly. Ledbetter had spent years on Texas chain gangs after committing multiple crimes, but went on to play at Carnegie Hall and influence a generation of folk and blues musicians. The film follows its hero as he plays music in bars and on the streets trying to make ends meet, travels with fellow renowned musician Blind Lemon Jefferson, and commits two murders (one unintended and the other in self-defense) that land him in prison. The film ends as he is released from prison and goes on to a successful music career. As with The Learning Tree, Parks created a sensitive and equally real portrayal of the everyday struggles and encounters with racism Leadbelly faced throughout his life. Ultimately, the film elegantly demonstrates how Leadbelly’s music emerged out of his experiences.

Solomon Northup’s Odyssey
1984, PBS American Playhouse Series
118 min.
Director and Composer: Gordon Parks
Based on Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup, screenplay by Lou Potter and Samm-Art Williams

Following a long pause, Gordon Parks returned to directing with a television film based on the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, part of PBS’s American Playhouse Series and one of the earliest films to be funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Featuring Avery Brooks in the titular role, Parks’s imagining of Northup was attuned to the time period in which the film emerged, in the footsteps of the Black Power movements of the 1970s. The film captured with nuance and historical grounding the horrific reality of slavery as well as the indomitable spirit of survival. It tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free Black man from Saratoga, New York, working as a carpenter and violinist to support his family, who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery. After 12 years as a slave in Louisiana, sold from one slave owner to another, Northup escaped, reunite with is family, and wrote a book that became an influential tool for abolitionists. In a 1985 interview, Parks—whose great-great-grandmother was a slave—elaborated on his decision to change and omit parts of Northup’s horrific story in order to make it accessible for television audiences: “I wanted to make it bearable for people to look at, I wanted to minimize the violence in it, if I could, and still tell the truth…. I was asked in certain areas to keep it toned down. I would say, 'But these things happened.'… I think it's a powerful film, but it could have been stronger. But you meet that sort of crisis on every film; there are some sort of compromises you always have to make.'' The film is an important and influential predecessor to the 2013 film Twelve Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen.

Moments Without Proper Names
58 min.
Director: Gordon Parks

In his final feature film as director, Gordon Parks turned the camera upon himself and created a deeply personal, poetic self-portrait. Moments Without Proper Names blends Parks’s striking photographs (spanning four decades) with newly-shot footage of the artist, found documentary and news footage, his own musical compositions, and personal reminiscences performed by a trio of esteemed actors: Avery Brooks, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Joe Seneca. Drawing from his memoires beginning with A Choice of Weapons (1966), the film serves as a non-linear, expressionistic and intimate portrayal of Parks the man and the artist.

1990, PBS
60 min.
Director, producer, composer, and photographer: Gordon Parks

This documentary film imaginatively captured the ballet Martin, a tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. produced and scored by Gordon Parks. The PBS dance film includes an introduction narrated by Parks and accompanied by a montage of his photographs from the period. The ballet was choreographed by Rael Lamb, with John Jones playing the role of Dr. King, and Sheila Rohan as Rosa Parks. It proceeds in five acts, corresponding to significant moments in Dr. King’s life—the bus boycott, march on Selma, his confinement in a Birmingham jail, his assassination, and his funeral.