New Documentary “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” Traces the Life and Times of the Legend
by Michael A. Gonzales
At the end of the documentary A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 20th and will broadcast on HBO later this year, journalist/filmmaker Nelson George talks about the landmark image the photographer took of hip-hop artists for the cover XXL magazine in 1998. Many of the recording artists at the shoot that included Kool Herc, Rakim and Questlove, showed-up simply because Parks was shooting the image. Having been on location that September day that was set into motion by Editor-in-chief Sheena Lester and her staff, I was a witness to the excitement and buzz he generated that day. It didn’t matter that he, at 86, was decades older than the hip-hop folks, everyone was aware that they were in the presence of a legend.
Parks, who’d been a Life magazine staff photographer, novelist (The Learning Tree), composer and director of the seminal “Blaxploitation” film 1971 Shaft, was a for real Great Black Man in the tradition of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and James Baldwin. Certainly, if there was a Mount Rushmore of Great Black Men, his head would be right there, looking out onto the world, searching for the perfect image.
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas in 1912, Parks was the youngest of fifteen kids who had a rough childhood growing-up under segregation and hard times. He had seen friends abused and killed, but he was able to escape by getting a job as a dining-car waiter on a train. In 1937, he saw photographs in a discarded magazine that rocked his world. “[Parks] saw these photographs of migrant workers who had been dispossessed off their farms. They were scrambling to make a living and get to the West Coast, where they hoped they might find employment and maybe fields that weren’t dustbowl dry,” said Cleveland Museum of Art Curator of Photography Barbara Tannenbaum in 2019. “He decides that photography is an incredibly powerful medium and that it could be a weapon to end racism, discrimination and poverty.”
After buying a camera in a pawn shop, Parks’ learned his craft, opened a photography studio in Chicago where he shot mostly society women as well as the neighborhood people, which helped him land a fellowship in 1941. With that award, which included a monthly salary, Parks moved to Washington D.C. to join the Farm Security Administration’s (FSA) Historical Section and photographing the social conditions of the District. It was while with FSA that Parks befriended and began documenting the life of cleaning lady Ella Watson. It was his pictures of Watson at home and work, which included the iconic “American Gothic” image of her holding her broom and mop in front of a large American flag, that got him noticed by Life magazine.
The weekly “Bible of America” was a journalistic as well as pictorial high achievement and Parks’ brutally beautiful photo-essay on a “Harlem Gang Leader” in 1948, which he did as a freelancer, secured him a staff position. However, though Parks was the only “Negro” staffer at Life, he refused to be pigeonholed as he moved swiftly between the streets and the suites, shooting high fashion, Black culture, which included collaboration with novelist Ralph Ellison, and pulpy crime scenes. Though he was shooting at a time before photography was considered to be art, there was a visual poetry in his work. As Nelson George points out, “There was elegance in Gordon’s work, even in his depictions of evil.”
Directed by John Maggio, A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks takes us through every station of his professional career. The film features commentary from directors Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee, art historian Maurice Berger, former basketball star/author Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and broadcaster Anderson Cooper, whose mother Gloria Vanderbilt was a former lover and lifelong friend. When Parks died on March 7, 2006, Anderson gave him a moving tribute on CNN, calling him, “The coolest man in the world.”
However, besides his relationship with Vanderbilt, Maggio doesn’t include any material about Park’s own family which included three ex-wives and four children including Gordon Parks Jr., who directed Superfly in 1972, and died in a plane crash in 1979. Second marriage daughter Leslie Campbell Parks and ex-wife #3 Genevieve Young appear in the film, though neither tells any intimate stories of their life together.
Though it would’ve been nice to have had a glimpse of Parks’ personal life, what Maggio does superbly is show us how much he has inspired several generations of photographers and filmmakers including LaToya Ruby Frazier, Jamel Shabazz, Devin Allen and Spike Lee, who recounts seeing Shaft in Times Square when it was released. “I wouldn’t be the filmmaker I am without Gordon,” Lee says. At the end of X, Lee’s biopic on Malcolm X, he incorporated many of Parks striking Nation of Islam photographs that were first published by Life in 1963. “His camera was a bazooka.”
One of my favorite interviews was with Baltimore photographer Allen talking about going to the local Barnes & Noble to study Parks’ pictures published in coffee table books. Allen’s powerful 2015 photo of a protestor fleeing police during Freddie Gray uprising became a Time magazine cover and proved that he learned his lesson well. Of course, Parks’ influence was far reaching. In fact I know more than a few writers, myself included, who have used Parks’ photographs as a jump-off for essays, short stories and novels.
A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks isn’t perfect, but, much like Allen, we do learn much about the power of the Parks’ powerful work to motivate, inspire and promote positive change in the world.
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music and culture since the 1980s. He has written for Vibe, Essence, The Source and Spin. Currently he writes true-crime features for CrimeReads, a book column (The Blacklist) for Catapult, essays for LongReads and music features for Wax Poetics. Forthcoming essay subjects include Octavia E. Butler, The Wire and Isaac Hayes. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.