Director Gordon Parks made a big noise a couple of years later with Shaft (1971), Richard Roundtree shooting to fame as a slick and sexy private eye, memorable score by Quincy Jones. But The Learning Tree had possibly a bigger impact on the Hollywood consciousness, the first movie released by a major studio (Warner Brothers) that was directed by an African American. Although actors like Sidney Poitier and Jim Brown had smashed the Hollywood glass ceiling, directors lagged far behind. And this would have been an interesting tale in its own right of adolescence in 1920s Kansas had the leading character Newt (Kyle Johnson) and buddy Marcus (Alex Clarke) not faced such blatant racism.
Told today, the story would take a different route, concentrating on the dilemma of Newt in coming forward with the evidence that could convict Marcus’s father Booker (Richard Ward) of murdering a white man, not just the guilt at sending another African American to the electric chair but fear of the killing spree that must follow from enraged whites. Instead, that aspect comes at the tail end of a story that sees Newt and Marcus react in different ways to white supremacy. It’s not that Newt is spineless, toeing the line, but that Marcus, filled with venom, sees violence as the only way to establish any kind of equality.
When Newt, a reasonable enough scholar, though hardly in the genius class, is marked down by his teacher on the grounds that it’s a waste of time going to college when he will still end up a cook or a porter, the young man responds, “You hate us colored kids, well, we hate you, every one of you.” Marcus has a similar mantra, “this town don’t want me and I don’t want this town.” That underlying endemic racism contrasts with the more overt vicious bullying of local cop Kirky (Dana Elcar) who casually shoots any African American who sensibly runs away at his approach and who ends every sentence with the word “boy.”
What makes this so powerful is that for long stretches there’s just the ordinary coming-of-age tale of Newt falling in love with Arcella (Mira Waters), sneaking a kiss, finding their own special place among the daffodils, buying each other Xmas presents, the romance conducted among summer picnics, winter snow, rowing on the river, the young man showing his beloved every respect even given that he is not a virgin, having unexpectedly lost his cherry while sheltering from a tornado. He has a conscience, too, going to work voluntarily for a farmer whose apples he stole.
It’s not just Newt’s equable temperament that’s prevents him from reacting like Marcus to the unfairness of the white-dominated world. He has the ability to get the best out of situations. A born negotiator he manages to triple the reward offered by Kirky for helping bring up a dead man from a river, and, having been taught to box, earns good money in a match. Marcus goes to jail for beating up a white man who attacked him with a whip and this not being a sanitised version of the African American world on release ends up working in a whorehouse while his father steals a supply of hooch.
Even so this is a hierarchy even a prominent white person cannot overturn. When a judge’s son invites Marcus and Arcella into a drug store, the other two must take their drinks outside.
A staff photographer for Life magazine, director Gordon Parks, adapting his autobiographical novel, avoids the temptation to pack the movie with brilliant images, instead concentrating on core coming-of-age aspects to drive forward the narrative. He doesn’t have to do much to point up the injustice. That’s inherent in the material.
It probably helped that the three young principals were inexperienced, although at the time of course roles for African Americans, except in cliché supporting parts, were hardly abundant. Kyle Johnson (Pretty Maids All in a Row, 1971) was 16 when playing the 14-year-old, Alex Clarke (Halls of Anger, 1970) pushing 20 and making his debut as was Mira Waters (The Greatest, 1977). There’s no straining for dramatic acting effect. Everyone plays it straight.
Others involved are Estelle Evans (To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962), Dana Elcar (Pendulum, 1968), Richard Ward (Black Like Me, 1964) and Russell Thorson (The Stalking Moon, 1968). Not only did Parks write, produce and direct but he supplied the music too.
It’s an absorbing, if at times difficult, watch. It’s an accomplished picture for a beginner. And you can’t help but wondering how four decades after this story takes place little had changed for ordinary African Americans and another five decades after the film’s release the battle for equality has not been resolved.