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Movie Review

Movie Review: Cinematic Contributions From One Of The Greatest Of All Kansans


A week and a half ago, on Kansas Day, someone on Twitter asked who would go on a Mount Rushmore of great Kansans. My first thought was that we were going to need space for a lot more than four faces up there. My very next thought was Gordon Parks.

Parks didn’t direct a lot of movies, although a few he did were enormously culturally significant. You know Shaft, of course, and chances are good you’re familiar with The Learning Tree, which was one of the first movies chosen for preservation in the National Film Registry when it was originally established. The Criterion Collection has showcased four of Parks’ movies this month, and watching them has just expanded my appreciation of the man.

We already know about The Learning Tree, but of the other three films on Criterion, one of them is good, and two of them are genuinely great. The good one is a film Parks made in 1984 for the PBS American Playhouse series called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey, and if that name sounds familiar to you, it’s because this is based on the memoir Twelve Years a Slave, obviously also the basis of the Oscar-winning film by that name. This understandably doesn’t pack the exhaustive punch of the later movie, but it’s plenty powerful, and I was delighted to find it stars Avery Brooks in his very first screen role.

You can also find a sort of poetic memoir from Parks called Moments Without Proper Names, his last film, which is made up almost entirely of his own words and images. It’s a pretty stunning work, and a great reminder that he didn’t shy away from directly confronting the viciousness of racism in the United States.

The one that surprised me the most, though, is Leadbelly, a biopic of the legendary musician, which, for a while, seems fairly rollicking and freewheeling, but shows itself to be far more complex, and reveals layers of loss and sadness that describe not just Leadbelly’s own life, but also the fuller Black experience in this country. This is a tremendous film.

Happily, none of these movies is hard to find, even if you don’t subscribe to Criterion.