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The Learning Tree

     An unusual theatrical revival: The Learning Tree (1969), director Gordon Parks's adaptation of his 1963 autobiographical novel about his poor-and-black boyhood in a tiny Kansas plains town. The book and movie are set in the 1920s, but funny old Model T's and the characters attending William S. Hart and Charlie Chaplin silents seem anomalous items: everything about the story smacks of the 1950s, where institutional racism is starting to crack and the African-American characters are experiencing a rising consciousness that will explode in the 1960s.

     At the center is an Abel-and-Cain tale of two neighborhood boys of color responding to the racially oppressive world in which they live. Newton (Kyle Johnston), 15, Parks-as-a-youth, is a good kid with a caring if impoverished churchgoing family, and he studies hard at school, has white friends, and plans to go north to college. Marcus (Alex Clarke) is the bastard son of a trashy alcoholic father, and he's a chronic lawbreaker who accuses the African-American minister who is praying for his soul of being an Uncle Tom.

     The Learning Tree, a gentle tale, is mostly on the side of Newton, an incipient version of an integrationist civil rights participant. But novelist-filmmaker Parks, who experienced much racism on his way to becoming a renowned Life magazine photographer, also extends a branch to Marcus, lonely and beaten up, and whose vigilant (and violent) separatism makes him a prime candidate for militant Black Power. There's rage in this kindly story; Parks would move on to directing Shaft (1970).

     Which is better, novel or movie? The book by a long shot, a lovely, simple piece of writing which seemed, on printing, an African-American alternative to its contemporary, To Kill a Mockingbird. The Learning Tree on film is a sincere but stilted affair, not especially well acted by a cast of little-known actors, and with Kyle Johnson too stiff and passive as Newton, the protagonist.

(Boston Phoenix, March 16-22, 2001)


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