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‘Shaft’ Director Gordon Parks Dies

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Mar 08, 2006 | 8:22am EST

African-American directing pioneer Gordon Parks died in New York yesterday. He was 93.

The filmmaker and photographer had been suffering ill health for some time, his nephew, Charles Parks, confirms.

Parks suffered a difficult childhood, growing up in poverty-ridden Kansas as the youngest of 15 children, before being orphaned at aged 15, which left him homeless.

After starting his photography career in the late 1930s, Parks became Life magazine's first ever black photographer in the 1940s and remained at the publication until 1968. During his time at Life, Parks photographed civil rights leader Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

His photos of Malcolm X appeared in the 1992 film starring Denzel Washington and he was made godfather of the black rights campaigner's daughter Quibilah Shabazz.

During World War II, Parks worked as a correspondent for the United States Office of War Information.

After decades as a photographer, Parks wrote, produced and directed The Learning Tree in 1969, based on his 1963 autobiographical novel. The film entered the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress--which preserves movies of national importance--in 1989.

Parks became Hollywood's first major black director when he directed Shaft, starring Richard Roundtree as the suave detective John Shaft, in 1971 and the sequel Shaft's Big Score in 1972.

Parks' son Gordon Parks Jr.--from his second marriage to Elizabeth Campbell--directed another Shaft sequel, Superfly, in 1972. Tragically, Parks Jr. was killed in a plane crash in Kenya in 1979.

Life's managing editor, Bill Shapiro, says, "(Life has) lost one of its dearest members. Gordon was one of the magazine's most accomplished shooters and one of the very greatest American photographers of the 20th century.

"He moved as easily among the glamorous figures of Hollywood and Paris as he did among the poor in Brazil and the powerful in Washington."

Parks is survived by a son and two daughters, from his first marriage to Sally Alvis.

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