In 1969, Gordon Parks became the Black American to direct a major Hollywood studio film with his debut feature, The Learning Tree, based on his semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. Encouraged by acclaimed film director and friend, John Cassavettes, Parks wrote, directed, and scored the film, a landmark in the history of American cinema. His next film, Shaft (1971), became an icon that helped defined a genre then referred to as Blaxploitation films. Parks would go on to direct five additional feature films, including documentaries and bio-pics depicting the lives of significant Black Americans, such as Leadbelly (1976) and Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984). His career in film was meteoric and short-lived, yet it inspired and guided generations of Black filmmakers that followed in his footsteps.
This exhibition brings together the first three films Parks made or contributed to in the years before the production of The Learning Tree:
Diary of A Harlem Family (1968)
The World of Piri Thomas (1968)
The selection was included as part of The World of Gordon Parks, a film retrospective presented in summer and fall 2021 in collaboration with Anthology Film Archives, New York, and Chicago Film Archives.
The three film program begins with Flavio, then Diary of a Harlem Family, and then The World of Piri Thomas. It runs approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, starting at 10:00 a.m., 11:40 a.m., 1:20 p.m., and 3:00 p.m. - the gallery closes at 4:00 p.m.
Masks and proof of vacination are required for entry. We ask anyone who is experiencing any symptoms of COVID, or has recently been around someone with COVID symptoms, to please reschedule their visit. As part of our pandemic safety measures, capacity in the gallery is strictly limited to 6 individuals. Groups of more than 10 individuals must schedule their visit in advance.
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16mm-to-digital, 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 boy 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 him. Over the course of several weeks Parks photographed and filmed Flávio’s daily life performing household chores, caring for his seven siblings, and battling debilitating asthma attacks. The story was published as a twelve-page photo essay titled “Freedom’s Fearful Foe” in the June 1961 of Life, and the film produced several years later. Moved by Parks’s heartbreaking coverage, Life’s readers donated money to support the da Silva family and the Children’s Asthma Research Institute and Hospital (CARIH) in Denver, Colorado offered free treatment for Flávio. Parks returned to Rio in July 1961 to help relocate the da Silva company 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, Flávio was sent back to Brazil in 1963. Although Parks maintained contact with Flávio in the decades that followed, he found that his subjects’ struggles never abated. As 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
16mm-to-digital, 20:00 min.
Director: Joseph Filipowic
Photographer and Narrator: Gordon Parks
Like Flávio, this film grew out of one of Parks’s Life magazine assignments. For the March 1968 Life 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 nine 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: The Negro and the City,” 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, create a short film that aired on public television. Diary of a Harlem Family was constructed from Parks’s photographs, new film footage, and Parks’s 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. Look at him, and know that to destroy him is to destroy yourself. You are weary of the long hot summers. He is tired of the long hungry winters. None of us are so far apart as it might seem. There’s something about all of us that goes far deeper than blood or Black and White. It is our common search for a better life and a better world. We march now over the same ground you once marched. We fight for the same things you still fight for. Our children’s needs are the same as those of your children. We too are America, America is us. It gave us the only life we know, so we must share in its survival. Look at us, listen to us, try to understand us. Our appeal is urgent. There is yet a chance for all of us to live in peace beneath these restless skies.”
The World of Piri Thomas
NET Journal (National Educational Television and Radio Center), Episode 175
16mm-to-digital, 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 largely based on Thomas’s best-selling memoir, Down These Mean Streets, published in 1967. The book—briefly banned by some schools and libraries in the early 1970s, but later became required reading by others—candidly describes 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 capture 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.”