Undoubtedly the biggest surprise among the first 25 films selected in 1989 for inclusion in the National Film Registry, this visually beautiful and moving, if somewhat melodramatic, story of a black teenager growing up in Kansas in the 1920s was the first feature film by a black director to
be financed by a major Hollywood studio. Gordon Parks directed, produced, wrote, and composed the score of this adaptation of his 1963 semi-autobiographical novel after a highly successful career as an acclaimed photojournalist.
Essentially a coming-of-age tale, the film focuses on smalltown Kansas denizen Newt Winger (Johnson). Newt is shown learning about sex (from a prostitute) and death, encountering the latter after discovering the corpse of a black gambler who was murdered by the local sheriff, Kirby (Elcar). Newt's
nemesis is Marcus Savage (Clarke), an embittered young man saddled with an absent mother and a negligent, angry father. Newt, by contrast, is supported by his hard-working, understanding mother (Evans), who has kept her son on the square despite the hardships and racism he must face. Newt's
resolve is tested when Newt experiences heartbreak and later witnesses the murder of his benign white employer Kiner (George Mitchell) by Marcus's father (Ward) and a white drunkard (Atterbury).
In tracing the encounters that make up Newt's moral and practical education, Parks depicts the ambiguous racial attitudes of blacks and whites in the Kansas town with an ironic complexity rarely found in earlier films about racism. The film is far more complex than Parks's strikingly different
second feature, SHAFT, the hugely successful, angry, urban action film that set the tone for the 1970s blaxploitation movies. THE LEARNING TREE's potential openness to criticism as a naive, old-fashioned tale is made greater by its sentimental characterizations, occasional sermonizing, and
leisurely pace. On the other hand, Parks and cinematographer Guffey, who filmed on location in the director's native Fort Scott, beautifully capture the feel of 1920s Kansas, and Johnson's performance (if none of the others) is very fine.
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- Review: Undoubtedly the biggest surprise among the first 25 films selected in 1989 for inclusion in the National Film Registry, this visually beautiful and moving, if somewhat melodramatic, story of a black teenager growing up in Kansas in the 1920s was the first… (more)