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Gordon Parks documentary on HBO only gives us half the picture

‘A Choice of Weapons’ talks about the activist and artistic pioneer but not enough about the person

It’s easy these days to forget the power of the still image. Our lives are drenched in video streaming from tiny, isolating screens, reprogramming us to crave constant movement and stimulation. The overwhelming volume and speed of these videos make it hard to slow down, stop and examine the deeper truths of modern life.

That’s why the new documentary A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks is so essential. Premiering Monday on HBO, the film examines the huge impact of Parks’ photography on American society, how he moved into directing films that broke barriers, and why his method of embedding with his subjects animates the work of three important Black photographers today: Devin Allen, LaToya Ruby Frazier and Jamel Shabazz.

Born in Kansas in 1912, Parks experienced some of the harshest aspects of American racism, seeing friends killed by police as a boy, and being told Black students did not have the intellect to attend college. Parks was the youngest of 15 children, and after his mother died, he found himself homeless at age 15. For the next 10 years, he wandered through various cities, working as a railroad porter, busser, brothel piano player, semipro basketball player — and then photographer.

From Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to gang leaders and everyday people, Gordon Parks’ images were the first time most white people saw Black life through a Black lens.

Gordon Parks/The Gordon Parks Foundation/HBO

“I might have turned eventually to the gun or the knife to survive, but by then I had chosen the camera,” Parks said on archival footage in the film. (He died in 2006 at age 93.) “Photography was a way in which I could explore my own feelings about racism in America, about the downtrodden, and somehow or another I might transcend my own experience.”

The director of the documentary, John Maggio, walks us through the period when Parks developed his skills as a portrait photographer for Black high society in the 1930s and early ’40s, then honed his journalistic eye working for the federal Farm Security Administration, which sent photographers to spend weeks or months on location to document social conditions. That’s when Parks met Ella Watson, who cleaned the government building in Washington where they both worked. His photographs of Watson doing her job led to the iconic 1942 image American Gothic: Watson posed with her broom and mop in front of an American flag, a lifetime of unrewarded struggle etched on her lean face.

Parks continued to photograph Watson in her home, which taught him that to truly capture a person’s humanity, he couldn’t just show up and start clicking. He had to spend time with them to bring forth the larger meanings that Parks recognized due to his own experiences. That epiphany led to his groundbreaking work as the first Black photographer for Life magazine, one of the most influential publications in mid-20th-century America. From Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali to gang leaders and everyday people, Parks’ images were the first time most white people saw Black life through a Black lens. It was a shift in context that helped propel the freedom movement of the 1960s.

This is the thread that connects the three current photographers to Parks. Allen is a Baltimore resident who, while trying to figure out how to become a photographer, pored over Parks’ books in the library. When Freddie Gray was killed in the back of a police van in 2015, Allen took to the streets with his camera, producing a series of arresting images of the historic protests and riots. One ended up on the cover of Time magazine — a lone Black figure fleeing a horde of police, capturing the moment and mood in a way that forces the viewer to stop and think about how the past remains present. It’s an example of how one frozen moment can reveal more than many minutes of video, and how photographs can fight injustice by capturing images that are, as Parks intended, both “document and symbol.”

“For the first time, I understood what Gordon was talking about, that the camera is a real weapon,” Allen said in the film. “And I realized how powerful I am with a camera in my hand.”

Ella Watson, a charwoman employed in a federal office building in Washington, stands in front of an American flag with her mop and broom in a pose reminiscent of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. Gordon Parks documented Watson’s daily life for the Farm Security Administration in 1942.

Corbis via Getty Images

Frazier did the same type of work in Flint, Michigan, when it was dealing with the crisis of a poisoned public water system. Shabazz, known for his portraits of people on the streets of his native New York City, embedded himself in the Rikers Island jail to reveal its inhumanity. The film spends considerable time on the work of this next generation. To see them bringing forth grace and humanity that is still questioned by too much of white America is to understand that when it comes to creating a blueprint for illuminating Black life, Parks is as essential as a Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison (with whom Parks collaborated to create the legendary photo series Invisible Man) or Sidney Poitier.

Ironically, the film could do more to illuminate Parks as a person. We learn that his work was informed by his resistance to racism, through archival footage of Parks and interviews with art experts and A-list names such as Bryan Stevenson, Ava DuVernay, Spike Lee and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. We are told he wrote novels, nonfiction, poetry, and composed orchestral and pop music. Maggio portrays Parks as the epitome of debonair — tailored suits, polished wood pipes, grand pianos, horseback rides, ascots. If you close your eyes, Parks’ voice might belong to a white man.

But halfway through, I found myself wondering: Mustn’t there have been another side to Parks? Did he ever marry or have children? What was his personality like — moody, funny, boisterous, demanding? “I live off my emotions, perhaps. And so I have turned my emotions into some mercenary thing, by which I could survive,” Parks said in the film. What were those emotions, besides resistance? A Choice of Weapons doesn’t say, even though several of Parks’ longtime friends are interviewed, along with one of his five children and one of his three ex-wives.

Ex-wife Genevieve Young provides one of the most frustrating glimpses of Parks, during the section devoted to his directing career. In 1969, Parks became the first Black person to direct a major studio feature, The Learning Tree, based on his semi-autobiographical novel. He followed that up in 1971 by directing Shaft, a massive hit credited with helping create the blaxploitation genre. The documentary describes how revolutionary it was to see a character like detective John Shaft on screen: an aggressive, streetwise, leather-clad Black man who cussed out white cops and bagged a white chick in his shower.

Baltimore’s Devin Allen is a photographer who is influenced by Gordon Parks’ work. “For the first time, I understood what Gordon was talking about, that the camera is a real weapon,” Allen said in the film.

HBO

“This was Gordon’s other personality,” said Young. It’s a startling revelation — that such smooth caramel hid an ebony gun-toting playboy. Why not explore how that persona informed his art? Another punch is pulled when Anderson Cooper, son of the heiress and socialite Gloria Vanderbilt, talks about his mother’s longtime “friendship” with Parks. They were much more than friends — they were a couple. Why dance around this romance?

Maggio and the producers, which include the musician Alicia Keys and her husband Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean, must have had their reasons for these omissions. The film moves quickly at an hour and 29 minutes, so an extra 10 minutes wouldn’t have hurt. Perhaps they felt his personality was covered in other projects because Parks was often written about and filmed during his lifetime. But here, it in some ways reduces Parks to the sum total of the racism he experienced.

Early in the film, Stevenson says: “To understand the weight that people of color felt in these spaces, where you basically had to be two people, one person around white people that would keep you safe and another person with your family, I think gave him an insight into the Black narrative.”

Clearly, as a Black man blazing a trail through the highest echelons of Manhattan society before the civil rights movement, seeking to open the eyes of his employers and America to the realities of Black life, Parks developed a persona for those spaces. I wish we could have seen the other side of Parks, in order to understand even deeper truths about his extraordinary art.

Jesse Washington is a senior writer for The Undefeated. You can find him giving dudes the bizness on a basketball court near you.