BIn general, the segregation of the 20th century America was documented in black and white, storing our collective memory in colorless, stoic images of violence and exclusion. However, the late Gordon Parks, a titan of 20th century photography, had taken a decidedly different approach. In 1956, as Life magazine’s first African-American photographer, he traveled through and around Mobile, Alabama, on a mission to capture the realities of Jim Crow. He chose to shoot in color, pointing his lens at the most vibrant, everyday moments of everyday life for African Americans: the church picnic, the trip to the ice cream parlor, hanging up your clothes to dry.
“His color representations were wonderfully poetic,” documentary filmmaker John Maggio tells The Guardian, “almost like Rockwell paintings, until you look closer.” Aside from Parks’ mastery of composition, each image had also captured innuendo, daily indignities in tiny but poignant detail: a young black woman and her niece standing in their best clothes, for example, standing beneath the strident red neon of a “input of colors”. “sign. The simple detail of a strap from her brief that fell off her shoulder is the tiny crack in a carefully maintained facade, powerfully exuding a seething and deep-seated frustration.
Parks, an innovative photographer, filmmaker, writer, and musician who died in 2006, is the subject of A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks, a new HBO documentary directed by Maggio, and co-produced in part by art philanthropists Alicia. Keys and Swizz Beatz. Throughout a wide-ranging career, the film’s underlying focus is on Parks’ investment in the humanity of his subjects, particularly the cuteness in his depictions of black life that had previously been hidden from view.
“Gordon allowed us to see the elegance of the lives we live,” says director Ava DuVernay in the documentary, reflecting on the painterly qualities of Parks’ photographs and the myriad ways in which he has influenced her approach to filmmaking. “When I look at his work, I think, ‘How did he get that, the quiet and the intimacy?’ With actors, you are trying to achieve the same ends: intimacy, connection, understanding. “
DuVernay appears in an all-star cast alongside director Spike Lee; the writers Jelani Cobb and George Nelson; and photographers Devin Allen, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Jamel Shabazz, who extol the breadth of his legacy through the impact it has had on their respective careers.
“I wanted to include a wide range of artists with different weapons,” explains Maggio, adding: “‘Choice of weapons’ was Gordon’s term.” Parks had titled her own 1966 memoir Choice of Weapons, a fitting metaphor that describes the power she found in photography in her own fight for justice. “He could have used the gun or the knife,” he had said in a televised interview, “but by then he had chosen the camera.”
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in 1912 in Bourbon County, Kansas, the youngest of 15 siblings, in a small segregated town steeped in poverty and racial violence. He taught himself how to use a camera and, after settling in Harlem, collaborated with novelist Ralph Ellison on a historical series describing the ups and downs of his community. In a manifesto, Ellison had directed Parks to approach images as “document and symbol,” infusing the photographer’s work with a distinct seriousness for the rest of his career.
After establishing himself as a steady freelancer at Glamor and Vogue in the mid-1940s, Parks joined the Life staff in 1948, having arrived at the magazine’s door with a sensational idea: filming a photo essay on him. gang leader from Harlem. His subsequent portrayal of 17-year-old Red Jackson from the Midtowners crew eschewed the cartoon in favor of a three-dimensional portrait of a young man: violent altercations appeared alongside scenes of mourning a murdered friend, of a pensive gaze through a broken window. . , of an obedient son who dries dishes in his mother’s kitchen.
“Gordon Parks had the ability to humanize people, and he really respected him,” noted Baltimore photographer Devin Allen tells The Guardian. “Where my own peers and friends are demonized, he is what inspires me to shed a different light on my community.”
Parks remained on the Life staff for over 20 years, photographing fashion, Broadway, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali, all the while transcending photography as a respected cultural figure. As he wrote more than a dozen books and appeared frequently on television, the charisma that disarmed his subjects (along with his impeccable personal style) allowed him to enter the ranks of high society. For more than 40 years, he even had a romantic relationship with railroad heiress Gloria Vanderbilt.
“I always knew there was more to their relationship than just a family friend spending weekends on Long Island with us,” recalls CNN host Anderson Cooper in the documentary, vaguely alluding to the true nature of his old friend. his mother. He later adds, “He had the ability to tell other people’s stories and the ability to get entangled in someone else’s life … I wouldn’t be a reporter today if it weren’t for Gordon Parks.”
In 1969, Parks broke new ground as the first black man to direct and produce for a major Hollywood studio with The Learning Tree, a Warner Bros film based on his own coming-of-age novel, with a fully cast and crew. integrated. In 1971, he directed and composed the music for Shaft, a pioneering film in the blaxploitation genre about a mild-mannered black detective who various figures in the documentary identify as the director’s alter ego.
“As a black man with agency, Shaft for me is the logical apotheosis for Gordon,” says Maggio. Unfortunately, though, as blaxploitation’s box office success waned, so did Parks’ movie-making opportunities. “The sad truth is that there was a ceiling for Gordon in Hollywood,” adds Maggio. “Nobody called him to take great pictures of World War II.”
Maggio says she was inspired to create this film in light of recent events that resonated with Gordon’s work – that is, the social movements that grew out of the images of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and George Floyd, underscoring how much and what little has changed. .
“I remember the solidarity march we had for Michael Brown in Baltimore, and how much it felt like the civil rights movement,” Allen says, though he maintains an optimistic view. “Gordon Parks laid the groundwork for black photographers to tell more black stories. It has inspired many of us to take the camera as a weapon. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism