“I was born dead,” says Gordon Parks. The family doctor, he continues, “pronounced me dead, wrapped me up in a sheet, and put me aside.” Thankfully, a younger doctor—named Dr. Gordon—took action, dunking the tiny inert body in a tub of ice water. “And I began to holler,” says Parks, “and I’ve been hollering ever since.”
Parks’ hollering is, of course, far from the usual. Elegant and intelligent, poignant and political—Parks’ art encompasses a remarkable range of subjects and forms. His photographs, films, poems, essays, novels, and musical compositions have made him an internationally renowned and respected figure. So, when he tells this story—about his near-death at birth—at the beginning of Craig Price’s Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks, HBO’s reverent documentary, it’s a striking reminder that his life—so often celebrated and admired—has been filled with traumas and difficulties. As he puts it, “Violence marred a good part of my youth and became my enemy. Fortunately, the common sense which my parents pounded into me would help select the most powerful weapons to use against it: photography, writing, music, and films became those weapons.”
The documentary, narrated by Alfre Woodard and co-produced by Denzel Washington and St. Clair Bourne, considers the many ways that Parks has put these weapons to potent, life-changing use, highlighting moments in his professional and personal life. It’s no small feat, to put together all these pieces—his photos for magazines as different as Vogue and Life, his films (including Leadbelly and Shaft), his ballet about Martin Luther King Jr., his three marriages, his books, his friendships with Malcolm X and Kathleen Cleaver, Gloria Vanderbilt and Ingrid Bergman, his 20-plus-years relationship with Flavio da Silva, a young Brazilian boy he met while doing a piece on “Poverty in Latin America” for Life, as well as the death of his eldest son, Gordon Jr. (who made the film Superfly) in a plane crash at the age of 41. The resulting 90-minute film is heartfelt and historically significant, by turns moving and melodramatic in its efforts to organize Parks’ accomplishments, which are literally too numerous even to list, and which, the film proposes, emerge from the man’s astonishing ambition and passion, and perhaps more profoundly, as the documentary has it, his rage against the injustice and pain that shaped his experience.
Half Past Autumn follows a general chronology, beginning with that extraordinary story of his birth in November of 1912, and including his travels as a famous, well-funded photographer and author, musical composition (with brief comments from his musical supervisor Mario Sprouse and cellist Kermit Moore), and his interactions—as a photojournalist—with figures as diverse as Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, Malcolm X, and the Black Panthers (Eldridge Cleaver asked him to be Public Relations Officer, but Parks told him no, thank you, “We don’t think the same way”). The last of Sarah and Jackson Parks’ fifteen children, he grew up on the family farm in Fort Scott, Kansas. As he recalls, his parents encouraged him to be “strong” in the face of prejudice. The film illustrates this by inserting a scene from The Learning Tree, in which a white woman teacher discourages the young black protagonist (played by Kyle Johnson): “Very few Negro students go to college; they just aren’t college material.” Parks is then shown accepting his 41st honorary doctorate, this one from Princeton University. Imagining what it might be like to send that degree to the teacher who told him he wasn’t “college material,” he observes, “I didn’t finish high school, but I realized I had come quite a distance.”
The film goes on to map that distance, beginning with his early days “shooting fashions” for a department store in St. Paul, Minnesota, and on to his ground-breaking work for the DC-based Farm Service Administration, headed by Roy Stryker, who advised Parks in 1942, “You just can’t photograph a bigot and write ‘bigot’ beneath the picture, because bigots have a way of looking like everyone else… You have to get at the root of bigotry.” According to Parks, he responded by shooting Ella Watson, whom he met while she was cleaning the FSA building. Instructing her to hold a mop and a broom, Parks set her in front of the U.S. flag—“dripping from the ceiling to the floor”—and so created his stunning photo, “American Gothic.” Eventually, of course, Parks moved to New York, and began his longtime gig with Life magazine, with a “Crime Across America” series, for which he wrote essays and shot photographs (he reads his own words, expressing his distress at seeing “a man whose penis had been cut off and stuffed in his mouth,” or photographing a man about to die in the gas chamber, while positioned just “six feet from the chair.” As Parks observes in his accompanying essay, “He had murdered dispassionately, and judgment was served dispassionately.”
As Half Past Autumn shows again and again, Parks himself was never dispassionate: his art reflects his ongoing commitment to social justice. Even if, as Nelson George offers in one segment, “Gordon has been ‘cool’ at various moments in his life, in terms of the black intelligentsia, but I don’t think that he’s viewed as a cutting edge figure in the black community today,” Parks rejects the responsibility to some mythical “community”: “I don’t have time for that. I’ve fought my own battles, I’ve been bloodied, so I think I have a right to do what I want to do.” There have been high personal prices to pay for his exercise of this “right,” as the documentary discloses—some obvious distance from his children and grandchildren, and three divorces, but in interviews, his family appears to forgive and admire him; certainly they appreciate his art, his politics, and his persistent urge to holler.
While Parks is clearly glad for his demanding and enormously rewarding assignments, he was also ready when Life sent him to head up their Paris Bureau (as he notes, to receive this plum position after just one year on staff was unheard of). In Europe, Parks’ sense of mission developed and deepened, as his subjects became more diverse and he was exposed to different cultures. Part of this shift was also personal—his marriage to his first wife Sally broke up and he met new people, who embodied unfamiliar values and outlooks, including Gloria Vanderbilt, with whom he became great friends. Here, the film offers one instance of a device it uses repeatedly and effectively. In representing Parks’ life choices, his occasional failings or regrets, his joys and triumphs, the documentary doesn’t pass its own judgment, but instead, juxtaposes perspectives of people who know him. When Vanderbilt enthuses about her relationship with Gordon: “It was like a spiritual communication,” the scene cuts to Parks, who remembers the situation slightly differently: “There would have been the possibility” of marriage with Gloria, he says, “but there was a great distance, I felt, between our families. I couldn’t reconcile that. We never even talked about racial problems in our relationship. It wouldn’t have affected her, but somehow or another, it got to me.”
With this observation and others—in particular concerning his Life magazine assignments, on segregation in Alabama in 1956, the Nation of Islam in the 1960s, and the assassination of Dr. King, Parks—Parks reveals his keen sensitivity to practical and political realities, like racism and classism, despite and because of his own increasing celebrity and wealth. He remembers his roots, and struggles with his public roles. He is not afraid to say what he means, or express his rage. As he wrote in 1968, “Dr. King spent the last years of his life preaching love to men of all colors. And for all this, a man, white like you, blasted a bullet through his neck. And in doing so the madman has just about eliminated the last symbol of peace between us.” And still, Parks chooses, as he phrases it in a 1966 book titled A Choice of Weapons, to fight back with his art. “I’ve lived in so many different skins, it is impossible for one skin to claim me, and I have felt like a wayfarer on an alien planet at times, balking, running, wondering what brought me to this particular place, and why. But once I was here, the dreams started moving in, and I went about devouring them as they devoured me.” Half Past Autumn gives you a glimpse into Parks’ dreams, troubles, and devouring spirit.