Today is Sunday, Nov. 30, and if Gordon Parks was alive, he would be 112 years old, perhaps still loading a camera, cleaning a paint brush, revising a piano concerto or working on his next book. Among the several conversations I had with him, especially during our eventful travel to South Africa, was about his deep love and admiration for the British painter J.M.W. Turner and of his goal to one day complete a biography of Turner’s productive life that, in many ways, mirrored his own.
Parks, who died March 7, 2006, at 93, poked at my memories when I read that filmmaker Mike Leigh was the director of a biopic about the famous English painter, and I wondered what Parks would have thought of that. Given the reviews of the film, I think he would have relished an opportunity to see it, adding his insights on a subject he had studied as fastidiously as he had done on all of his artistic endeavors.
It’s hard to find a moment in Parks’ adventurous life when art in some form or fashion wasn’t involved. From the very beginning of his remarkable career, he intuitively knew that his camera was a potent weapon. He also knew that the artist could be a powerful force for social and political change.
The last of 15 children born to a family of farmers in Fort Scott, Kan., it didn’t take Parks long, particularly after the death of his mother when he was a teenager, to realize that life wasn’t going to be easy or fair. That he was alive at all was miraculous because he was born dead and only stirred to life when a caring doctor dunked him in a bucket of ice-cold water.
“I snapped to life screaming,” Parks recalled on a number of occasions, “and I’ve been screaming ever since.”
Most of the screams were nuanced and deftly concealed in his art. One of his first outcries can be heard in the photo of Ella Watson. Parks was working in Washington, D.C., with the Farm Security Administration when he happened upon Watson, a cleaning lady at one of the buildings he frequented. He posed her against the backdrop of an American flag as she held a broom and a mop. This was his “American Gothic,” which mocked a famous painting of the same name by Grant Wood.
A miracle of birth and a coterie of caring friends and associates propelled Parks along the path to national acclaim. In 1948, he began his long tenure with Life magazine. For nearly a quarter of a century, Parks and his camera were everywhere, chronicling the Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam, gangs in Harlem and fashion shows in Paris. He captured such luminaries as Malcolm X (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Gloria Vanderbilt and Ingrid Bergman. Because of his ability to tell stories with his camera, he was asked if he could do the same with a pen. “The Learning Tree,” published in 1963, was a convincing answer.
Seven years later, this gripping autobiographical account of Parks’ childhood in Kansas had another life as one of the best films ever made about the Black experience in America. Subsequent films, such as “Shaft” and “Shaft’s Big Score,” were all he needed to get the green light for other projects. There were even television productions, most memorably “The Odyssey of Solomon Northup,” with Avery Brooks as the protagonist.
For the next generation or so, Parks divided himself into several interesting selves, each one phenomenally successful. And it is unfortunate that so much acclaim for another film version of Northup’s life, released last year, was said and written without any mention of its predecessor.
By the time he slowed down in the late 1990s, Parks had produced four memoirs; one ballet; three concertos; composed a popular tune, “Don’t Misunderstand,” which is a standard today; one novel, “Shannon”; and 11 films. In addition, he created a trio of chapbooks that combined poetry, photographs and painting; made a slew of speaking engagements; and received over 53 honorary degrees from colleges and universities all over the world. It’s clear he reached heights that, as a high school dropout, he could never have imagined.
But all wasn’t rosy for Parks. Again and again, he had to overcome bigotry, unbridled racism and discrimination. There were also personal setbacks, including three divorces and the death of his son Gordon Jr. in a plane crash in Kenya during a film shoot. But these obstacles were no match for his will and certitude; when Parks set his mind to it, he accomplished the difficult right away; the impossible took a little while longer.
As is often said about this mortal coil, no one gets out alive. What matters are the events between the first scream and the last whisper. Parks more than lived up to the notion that, as he said, “Sometimes I feel like a fine horse galloping through the wind.”
And what a glorious and productive run it was.
Some of his accomplishments are memorialized in schools, academies and galleries, including one at the College of New Rochelle that bears his name. And through the tireless work and dedication of his daughter Toni, his legacy is assured—a legacy that surfaces each time one of his films, photographs or books are invoked.