The Learning Tree novel describes the contradictions of 1920s Kansas with precise detail, from the baffling actions of Newt’s white classmate, who courageously defends Newt in one scene and demeans him in another, to the paternalistic attitudes of employers. Educators could be encouraging and undermining. Newt’s cousin decides to pass as white not to enjoy wider privilege but because her friends and family risk violent recrimination whenever they walk down the street with her. In 1920s Kansas, Klan activity was on the rise, and although Kansas never suffered the violent annihilation of black communities that neighboring Oklahoma and Missouri saw, lynch mobs formed in the nearby towns of Independence and Coffeyville during Parks’s Fort Scott childhood. Newt’s fear of precipitating a race riot was not unfounded.
At a time when Hollywood still struggles to reflect the diversity of American life, the film of The Learning Tree, shot both in Fort Scott and Hollywood, sets important precedents. With the backing of his friend, director John Cassavetes, Parks was handed the reins by Warner Brothers—the first Black director of a major Hollywood film.
Parks’s decision to film in his native Fort Scott required him to dismantle local skepticism. By the time of the shoot, the town’s Black population had dwindled, and residents were wary of how their home would be depicted. Parks preempted hometown resentment by hiring many Fort Scotters as crew members and extras, and by bringing business to local hotels and restaurants. A Life Magazine photo spread on Fort Scott preceded the opening, as well as a star-studded advance screening.
The significance of Parks’s adaptation of The Learning Tree comes not only from its landmark status as the first Black-directed film produced by a major Hollywood studio, but also from Parks’s oversight as producer, screenwriter, composer, and author of the source material. The film is a deeply personal statement, and as such is stands on a tradition of Black filmmaking that extends from Oscar Micheaux to Charles Burnett, and also anticipates the auteur movement of the 1970s.
View the online exhibition, "Homeward to the Prairie I Come", part of the K-State Gordon Parks Project initiated by the Beach Museum of Art and K-State Department of English.