The Learning Tree is Gordon Parks’adaptation of one of two memoirs written in Paris, a muted autobiographical look at his small-town childhood in Kansas. Mistakenly thought independent despite Warner Bros.’ three-million-dollar input, the landmark film was presented by TC African Diaspora Cine-Club in its free Friday series. Video quality was most uneven, because this national treasure is not on DVD, so the much-admired visuals were lost.
Before the Depression, Fort Scott is at first glance Main Street, church-going, wide-open spaces, horses and the ol’ swimming hole. That façade is shattered to disclose the underbelly of violence, miscegenation and racism, pervasive from schoolroom and athletic field to ice-cream parlor on to bordello, jail and courtroom.
Fifteen years old, Newton “Newt” Buchanan Winger (Kyle Johnson) studies with an eye to the college entrance from which teacher-counselor Miss McClintock (Peggy Rea) would dissuade him; he attends church with parents Jack and Sarah and blind Uncle Robert (Felix Nelson, Estelle Evans, Joel Fluellen), has a chaste romance with newcomer Arcella Jefferson (Mira Waters), and does the usual monkeying around with friends.
Awareness does not come fully -- even when the boys witness the sheriff’s unnecessary killing of a black man dicing and drinking and they are paid to locate the body in the river, a scene anticipating the ending. And though one of them, angry despairing Marcus Savage (Alex Clarke), is put in jail for beating the farmer (George Mitchell, as Jake Kiner) who catches them poaching apples, Newt apologizes and offers to work for free.
Arcella’s shame and his loss of her are tenderly pictured, but Newt remains the good boy and does not respond to the glowering of Marcus, now released and working in the bar-whore house of Chappie Logan (blues vocalist Jimmy “Mr. Five by Five” Rushing). Unnoticed in the barn loft, Newt is witness to Kiner’s firing of drunk hand Silas Newhall (Malcolm Atterbury), and to a subsequent murder.
The accused Newhall is brought to trial before Judge Cavanaugh (Russell Thorson), a liberal for whom Sarah cleans house and offers up churchly common sense. Made fearful by tales of the town’s past racial hatred, the upright young man faces a decision that will ultimately affect his future life.
The court case closes spectacularly, and the white community is excoriated by the judge for its prejudices and complicity. Newt himself still must face greater personal grief and a physical challenge before, following his uncle’s wise words, going out into the world of study and profession.
Even so, The Learning Tree feels less hard-edged than the director’s Shaft and Leadbelly or, chronologically between them, white Martin Ritt’s Sounder, also on a young rural black’s Depression-era maturation towards education. Parks did it first, however, forty years ago “taking all those chances on my first picture that nobody ever took before,” and the pioneer has to step with extra care lest the door shut behind him.
(Released by Warner Bros./Seven Arts; not rated by MPAA.)