Best movies: The Learning Tree (1969), Shaft (1971), Shaft’s Big Score! (1972)
Two years before Melvin Van Peebles and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassssss Song triggered the rise of black filmmakers’ exploitation cinema, renown photojournalist Gordon Parks had woken Hollywood’s shotcallers up to the possibility of black directors telling genuine, thought-provoking black stories.
The Learning Tree, based on Parks' 1964 semi-autobiographical novel, was the first major studio movie to be helmed by a person of color, a monumental achievement that indirectly led to the later careers of Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Albert and Allen Hughes, who’ve all dabbled in the studio system.
The Learning Tree remains a widely respected film, but Parks is best known for Shaft, the “bad mutha…” hit that’s been quoted endlessly and stands as one of the ’70s-era’s best action movies. A year after Shaft’s 1971 release, Parks’ son, Gordon Parks, Jr., followed in daddy’s footsteps with Super Fly, another of the Blaxploitation movement’s strongest pics. Excellence ran in the family.