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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.