With significant accomplishments to his credit as a photographer, journalist, filmmaker, screenwriter, novelist, poet, composer and librettist to his credit, Gordon Parks may well be the African-American Renaissance man par excellence. He has won over 20 awards and received 23 (as of 1995) honorary degrees in literature, fine arts and humane letters. Parks is reputed to be Hollywood's first black director of major films but he first gained acclaim as a preeminent photojournalist at LIFE magazine from 1948-68. His subjects included such diverse topics as the black Muslims, Ernest Hemingway's Paris and life in American ghettoes. "The Learning Tree", Parks' autobiographical novel about growing up black in 1920s Kansas, provided the foundation for his moving, sometimes didactic and stunningly photographed 1969 feature debut which he produced, wrote, directed and scored.
In 1989, "The Learning Tree" was among the first 25 films deemed "culturally, historically, or esthetically significant" enough to be included in the National Film Registry for future preservation. Parks' second feature, "Shaft" (1971), actually had a far greater cultural impact. A major commercial success, the gritty NYC-lensed black detective story was one of the key early films in the 70s "Blaxploitation" movement. "Shaft" generated a hit theme song, two sequels (the first, 1971's "Shaft's Big Score", was also helmed by Parks) and a TV series. Continuing to work in the action genre for the next several years, Parks displayed increasing technical and narrative proficiency and was rewarded with bigger budgets for his efforts. What was missing was the personal and committed elements in evidence in "The Learning Tree". He recaptured some of those qualities in "Leadbelly" (1976), a fine if somewhat sanitized biopic about legendary blues singer Huddie Ledbetter.
Perhaps Parks' most accomplished film, "Leadbelly" boasted a strong and charismatic central performance by Roger E. Mosley (best known as laid-back helicopter pilot T.C. on TV's "Magnum, P.I."), great music and awe-inspiring cinematography from Bruce Surtees. Produced by a tax shelter group and copyrighted by a Netherlands entity, the film failed to find the large audience it so richly deserved due partially to poor marketing and distribution but moreover because young modern filmgoers neither knew nor cared about the subject. This turned out to be Parks' swan song as a feature director.
Parks went on to write several volumes of poetry and fiction. An accomplished self-taught pianist, he composed a number of piano sonatas, a symphony and other works for the concert stage. Parks directed and composed music for several interesting projects for PBS in the 80s (the 1984 historical drama "Solomon Northrup's Odyssey" and the autobiographical documentary "Gordon Parks: Moments Without Proper Names" and ushered in the 90s with "Martin" (PBS, 1990), an original, five-movement ballet about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King. Parks served as executive producer, director, composer, keyboardist and documentary photographer for this boldly ambitious project. Father of the late director Gordon Parks Jr, who was best known for "Superfly" (1972).