The segregation of twentieth-century America was mostly captured in black and white, leaving us with somber, colorless pictures of violence and isolation. However, the late Gordon Parks, a giant of twentieth-century photography, took a different approach.
In 1956, as Life magazine’s first Black staff photographer, he went on assignment to record the reality of Jim Crow in and around Mobile, Alabama. He opted to photograph in color, capturing both the more brilliant and mundane aspects of Black American life: church picnics, trips to the ice cream store, and hanging laundry to dry.
“His color renderings were beautifully poetic,” says documentary filmmaker John Maggio to the Guardian, “almost like Rockwell paintings, until you look closer.” Aside from Parks’ compositional ability, each shot had also caught nagging, everyday indignities in minute but devastating detail — a young Black lady and her niece, for example, standing in their nicest attire behind the glaring red neon of a “colored entrance” sign. The tiniest break in a scrupulously kept veneer, a strap of her slip having dropped from her shoulder, potently distills a deep-seated, seething discontent.
A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks, a new HBO documentary directed by Maggio and co-executive produced in part by art philanthropists Alicia Keys and Swizz Beatz, is about Parks, a renowned photographer, film-maker, writer, and musician who died in 2006. The film’s underlying emphasis is on Parks’ engagement in the humanity of his subjects, notably the compassion in his images of Black life that had previously been concealed from view, throughout the course of his long career.
“Gordon allowed us to see the elegance of the lives that we live,” filmmaker Ava DuVernay says in the film, referring to Parks’ impressionistic pictures and the many ways in which he has affected her approach to filmmaking. “I think to myself, ‘How did he get that ease and intimacy?’ when I look at his work.” You’re attempting to attain the same goals with actors — intimacy, connection, and understanding.”
DuVernay is joined by fellow filmmaker Spike Lee, novelists Jelani Cobb and George Nelson, and photographers Devin Allen, LaToya Ruby Frazier, and Jamel Shabazz in an all-star cast, all of whom praise the breadth of his legacy via the influence he has had on their various professions.
“I wanted to include a diverse group of artists with a variety of weapons,” Maggio says, adding, “‘Choice of Weapons’ was Gordon’s term.” Parks’ book, Choice of Weapons, published in 1966, was a fitting metaphor for the power he discovered in photography in his own battle for justice. In a televised interview, he added, “I might have turned to the gun or the knife, but by then I had chosen the camera.”
Gordon Roger Alexander Buchanan Parks was born in 1912 in Bourbon County, Kansas, to a family of 15 children in a tiny, segregated community plagued by poverty and racial violence. He taught himself how to handle a camera, and after relocating in Harlem, he worked on a groundbreaking series with author Ralph Ellison showing the highs and lows of their neighborhood.
Ellison had urged Parks to treat the photography as both “document and symbol” in a manifesto, instilling a sense of solemnity in the photographer’s work for the rest of his career.
Parks joined the Life team in 1948 after established himself as a consistent freelancer at Glamour and Vogue by the mid-1940s, having landed on the magazine’s doorstep with a spectacular idea: to film a photo essay on the boss of a Harlem gang. His subsequent portrayal of 17-year-old Red Jackson of the Midtowners crew avoided caricature in favor of a three-dimensional portrait of a young man, with violent altercations juxtaposed with scenes of mourning for a murdered friend, a pensive gaze through a broken window, and a dutiful son drying the dishes in his mother’s kitchen.
The featured Baltimore-based photographer Devin Allen tells the Guardian, “Gordon Parks had the ability to humanize people, and I really respected that about him.” “In a world where my own peers and friends are being vilified, he’s the one who inspires me to see my community in a new light.”
Parks was on staff at Life for for 20 years, photographing fashion, Broadway, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali while also establishing himself as a renowned cultural personality. The magnetism that disarmed his subjects (combined with his exquisite personal style) allowed him access into the ranks of high society as he published more than a dozen books and regularly appeared on television. He even had a love connection with Gloria Vanderbilt, a railroad heiress, for more than 40 years.
“I always knew there was more to their relationship than just a family friend who would spend weekends in Long Island with us,” CNN anchor Anderson Cooper says in the documentary, referring to his mother’s longstanding acquaintance’s actual character. “He had the ability to tell other people’s stories, and to enmesh yourself in someone else’s life,” he says later. If it weren’t for Gordon Parks, I wouldn’t be a reporter today.”
With The Learning Tree, a Warner Bros. picture based on his own coming-of-age book and featuring a completely integrated cast and crew, Parks made history as the first Black man to direct and produce for a major Hollywood studio. Shaft, a pioneering film in the blaxploitation genre about a sophisticated Black detective who numerous individuals in the documentary identify as the director’s alter ego, was directed and composed by him in 1971.
“As a Black man with agency, I see Shaft as Gordon’s logical apotheosis,” Maggio adds. Unfortunately, when blaxploitation’s movie office popularity faded, so did Parks’ filmmaking possibilities. “The sad truth is that Gordon’s career in Hollywood had a ceiling,” Maggio continues. “No one approached him about making great World War II films.”
Maggio claims that contemporary events that connected with Gordon’s work prompted him to make this video, notably the social movements that erupted from the images of Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and George Floyd, which highlight both how much and how little has changed.
“I remember the solidarity march we had in Baltimore for Michael Brown and how much it felt like the civil rights movement,” Allen recalls, yet he maintains a positive outlook. “Gordon Parks paved the way for more Black photographers to tell more Black stories.” So many of us have been motivated to use the camera as a weapon because of him.”