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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: December 14th, 2021 Movie Release Year: 1969

The Learning Tree - The Criterion Collection

Overview -

The Learning Tree is the debut feature from celebrated photojournalist Gordon Parks. Based on his semi-autobiographical novel, the film is a coming-of-age story that follows an African-American teenager navigating the trials of growing up in 1920’s rural Kansas. The Criterion Collection brings the landmark film to Blu-ray with a solid A/V presentation featuring a new 2k restoration and a wealth of bonus features. Highly Recommended.

With this tender and clear-eyed coming-of-age odyssey, the renowned photographer turned filmmaker Gordon Parks not only became the first Black American director to make a Hollywood studio film, he also served as writer, producer, and composer, resulting in a deeply personal artistic achievement. Based on Parks’s own semi-autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree follows the journey of Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson), a teenage descendant of Exodusters growing up in rural Kansas in the 1920s, as he experiences the bittersweet flowering of first love, finds his relationship with a close friend tested, and navigates the injustices embedded within a racist legal and educational system. Exquisitely capturing the bucolic splendor of its heartland setting, this landmark film tempers nostalgia with an incisive understanding of the harsh realities, hard-won lessons, and often wrenching moral choices that shape the road to self-determination of the young Black man at its center.
SPECIAL EDITION FEATURES
• New 2K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
• New documentary on the making of the film, featuring artist and critic Ina Diane Archer, curator Rhea L. Combs, and filmmakers Ernest R. Dickerson and Nelson George
• New conversation, moderated by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie, between artist Hank Willis Thomas and art historian Deborah Willis about the influence of director Gordon Parks
• My Father: Gordon Parks (1969), a documentary made on the set of The Learning Tree, narrated by Gordon Parks Jr., and featuring interviews with Gordon Parks Sr. and members of the cast and crew 
• Diary of a Harlem Family and The World of Piri Thomas, two 1968 films on which Parks played creative roles, with a new introduction by Combs
• Unstoppable (2005), a documentary featuring producer Warrington Hudlin in conversation with Parks and filmmakers Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles
• Trailer
• English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
• PLUS: “How It Feels to Be Black,” a 1963 Life magazine photo-essay by Parks, and an excerpt from the director’s 2005 book A Hungry Heart: A Memoir

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p AVC/MPEG-4
Length:
107
Aspect Ratio(s):
2.35:1
Audio Formats:
English Mono
Subtitles/Captions:
English
Special Features:
Booket with excerpts from Gordon Parks' “How It Feels to Be Black” and his memoir "A Hungry Heart"
Release Date:
December 14th, 2021

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

“Death’s a long way from you, son.”

The film opens on an agrarian homestead on the Kansas plains in the 1920s. Farmhand Newt (Kyle Johnson) lives with his devout family in a modest home. As a tornado cuts through a nearby field the winds knock the lean teenager down but he is rescued by Big Mabel (Carol Lamond) who seduces the young boy as he falls out of consciousness. When he awakens we’re taken on a journey as he empowers his life through righteous living in the face of racism, violence, and the growing pains of being a teenager. While a determined yet humble boy, Newt seeks wisdom from his ailing mother (Estelle Evans) and blind Uncle Rob (Joel Fluellen). Newt’s resolve is ultimately tested after witnessing a murder and must testify in court. The Learning Tree is a compelling portrait of the discrimination and prejudices present in a “free state” with double standards as the harsh reality of growing up as an African-American.

Newt’s moral upbringing through his devotion to God and his family’s strictness on character development provides him with the strength to handle the onslaught of racism in his everyday life. Parks sets up many scenes in which Newt is tested but offers these situations without a clear right/wrong outcome. When his hotheaded friend Marcus (Alex Clarke) retaliates against a white man for whipping him after Marcus stole some apples, Newt is horrified yet empathizes with both of them. We know the childhood struggles of the boys and can see clearly why Marcus snapped. Newt can see beyond his present self and with the guidance of his mother and his own self-reflection wants more out of life. A life after his rural home of Cherokee Flats. 

Photojournalist Gordon Parks would achieve more success with his later directing efforts with Shaft, Shaft’s Big Score, and The Super Cops. The Learning Tree lacked a call to arms or a sensationalist bent that would raise a political or social agenda. While the threat of casual violence is met upon the characters constantly, Parks doesn’t treat it like violence. The audiences going to see a Gordon Parks’ movie in 1969 saw a slice of life story that didn’t involve the larger picture of racial tensions and violence. Those frustrated viewers wanted a message rather than insightful remembrances. Where the film ultimately succeeds is in creating a vision for the reality of Black Life that would be foreign to most white audiences at the time.    

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey (Bonnie and Clyde, From Here to Eternity) and the first-time director achieved their vision together with outstanding results. While the two photographers create a look that is nostalgic for a time gone by there is a lack of glossy sentimentality. Those who have seen Parks’ photographs will recognize a similar use of natural light, framing, and attention to a reflective subject. When watching the film I found myself pausing many scenes to marvel at the lighting, color, and composition. 

Performances in the film are supplied by an ensemble of actors well suited for their roles. While the acting is a bit wooden, what matters most is the relatability of these characters and the portrayal of their struggles and relationships. Parks’ characters are often reflective with many scenes showing quiet moments of deep thought and rumination. As an adaptation of his own life story, the film posits itself as a work of self-examination offering an outlet for Parks to sort out his future. 

The Learning Tree is a bittersweet portrait of young African-American boys forced to grow up faster than their white counterparts. Their lives are faced with complex decisions and situations reserved for adulthood. Murder, degradation, and humiliation are threads that weave through their daily lives. The film doesn’t radicalize the viewer or present an optimistic ending but frames the struggles and offers a glimmer of hope. Gordon Parks inspired generations of African-Americans to tell their stories hoping to fill the gaps in our nation’s history. 

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Learning Tree plants itself on Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection. The film is pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc and housed in a typical transparent keepcase with a booklet of essays. Loading the disc offers the Criterion logo followed by a static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options. 

Video Review

Ranking:

The Learning Tree receives a new 2k restoration with a 1080p/AVC encode presented in the film’s original CinemaScope 2.35:1 aspect ratio. This HD transfer shows plenty of organic film grain with stable black levels showcasing detail within shadow. The autumnal color palette is filled with warm earth tones and bold primaries. High contrast levels allow for indoor scenes to reveal the intricate production design. Greens, yellows, and reds are vivid and bright. 

Park’s framing and shot composition resemble his photographs with layers of texture and spilling over with life. Fine detail in costuming and set pieces are evident from the Sunday dresses and overalls to the butterflies pinned to boards on the Judge’s study walls. Facial features brim with lines, creases, and the testament of hard labor. 

This 2k restoration was taken from an interpositive used on the 2011 Warner Archive DVD. Collectors with that disc should seriously consider upgrading to this release from Criterion Collection.  

Audio Review

Ranking:

The Learning Tree makes the leap to Criterion Blu-ray with the film’s original PCM Mono audio track. This presentation offers a sound mix that is clear and clean throughout the feature. Dialogue exchanges are heard without hiss or pop and levels are maintained allowing for an enjoyable experience.  

Special Features

Ranking:

Brimming with featurettes, interviews, and documentaries Criterion has loaded this release with special features. Start with Revisiting The Learning Tree as an excellent introduction to the film and its director. 

  • My Father: Gordon Parks (HD 27:15) A behind the scenes documentary directed by Gordon Parks Jr. that explores not only the production of the film but also his father’s vision and work ethic. 
  • Revisiting The Learning Tree (HD 29:20) An engrossing featurette with interviews from Rhea L. Combs, filmmakers Ina Diane Archer, Ernest Dickerson and Nelson George who discuss at length Parks’ legacy and the impact of the film on a generation of African-Americans. Produced by The Criterion Collection in 2021.  
  • Gordon Parks: Artist & Activist (HD 17:58) Focusing on Gordon Parks’ photography and art this interview featurette features artists Deborah Willis and Hank Willis Thomas. Hosted by Michael B Gillespie this compelling interview segment was produced by The Criterion Collection in 2021. 
  • Documentaries:
    • Introduction by Rhea L. Combs and Nelson George (HD 8:35) Filmmaker George and art curator Combs provide an insightful introduction for the two documentaries included on this release from Criterion. Filled with still photographs and clips this brief segment sets the groundwork for experiencing the documentaries. 
    • Diary of a Harlem Family (HD 20:17) Based on Park’s 1969 LIFE magazine photo essay “A Harlem Family” this documentary shows the dire living conditions of a poor family in Harlem. 
    • The World of Piri Thomas (HD 59:30) In 1968 Gordon Parks directed this short film about poet and author Piri Thomas. Piri’s autobiography “Down These Mean Streets” revealed the author’s struggles living in Spanish Harlem.  
    • The MovieMakers (HD 7:19) A vintage behind-the-scenes featurette from The Learning Tree
  • Trailer (HD 4:01)
  • Booklet: Containing text from Parks’ photo essay “How It Feels to Be Black” and his memoir A Hungry Heart, this 40 page booklet is an excellent accompaniment to the film. 

Final Thoughts

The Learning Tree is a crowning achievement in Black filmmaking that is often overlooked in the wake of the Blaxploitation movement - especially compared to Parks' later efforts. Filled with memorable characters and gut-wrenching injustices, Parks’ film is a moving portrait of an empowered boy that resonates today. 

The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection receives a solid 2k restoration with the original mono audio track and a booklet filled with work from Parks making this an unmissable release for fans of Black Cinema. Highly Recommended.