The Learning Tree
It is a sad fact that groundbreaking art often doesn’t seem all that wonderful a few decades down the line. This is because once the ground is broken, others arrive and find it possible to explore with a lot more freedom the things the pioneer had to struggle to be allowed to express at all. I think that is the case here. Gordon Parks was a photographer who wrote a semi-autobiographical novel about growing up black in 1920s Kansas. Somehow he was able to convince a major studio that he could write the screenplay, produce and direct it, and even write the music! This was remarkable, because up to that point (1969!) there had never been a black man directing a Hollywood motion picture. Hard to believe, but true.
The result is a movie that is beautiful to look at, that has a reasonably good story to tell, and is earnestly acted by all involved … but that’s the killer word there: earnest. The lessons and insights are driven home relentlessly, in case anyone might have missed them. Case in point: The blind uncle talking to his fifteen-year-old nephew about how his blindness has helped him see beyond race, that he can’t remember what white looked like, but he remembers other colors. And wouldn’t it be nice if people came in all different colors, so we were all different from each other and wouldn’t gang together to discriminate against each other? This is far from a profound point … except that it probably was profound to a lot of people who had never thought that way before. I hope so, I hope it might have changed some unconsciously racist minds. (Really stone racists never change, we just have to wait for them to die off.) There is a similar speech delivered by a white judge who has witnessed his courtroom turn into a lynch mob at the idea that a black man killed a white man, and they probably would have strung him up if he hadn’t grabbed a cop’s gun and killed himself. The ones who shouted “Kill that nigger!” the loudest are shown to be repentant under the judge’s contempt for them. Well … I guess Atticus Finch and Scout managed to turn aside those who came for Tom Robinson at the jailhouse door, so maybe it’s possible.
It’s interesting that this is set in Kansas rather than the deep South. There is a progressive school principle who feels colored kids should get the same education as whites. (They all go to school together, but that’s only because the county couldn’t afford “separate but equal.”) It’s still racist, of course, down deep under the cordial relations the races have most of the time. But the really awful sheriff stands out in this community, rather than being one of a multitude.
Bottom line, I can agree with the Library of Congress, which placed this on its list of important films to be preserved. No question about that. But as cinema art, viewed from the perspective of nearly fifty years later, I’m afraid it’s only a so-so film.