Parks, Gordon, Jr. (7 Dec. 1934 - 3 Apr. 1979), filmmaker, was born in...

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Parks, Gordon, Jr. (7 Dec. 1934 - 3 Apr. 1979), filmmaker, was born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the eldest son of Sally Alvis and GORDON PARKS SR., the latter an award-winning photojournalist, author, composer, and filmmaker. Born less than a year into his parents’ marriage, Gordon Jr. was nicknamed Butch as a newborn by his maternal grandfather, Joe Alvis. “There was not too much I could give my first three children being a waiter on a railway,” recalled Gordon Parks Sr. in the 2001 film documentary Half Past Autumn. In 1940 the Parks family moved to Chicago. There Gordon Jr. spent much of his childhood while his father forged his career. Parks developed a passion for riding horses, which became a lifelong interest.

When he was sixteen Parks moved to Paris, where his father had been assigned for two years by Life magazine. In Europe, he developed a keen interest in the fine arts, also cultivating a desire to travel that greatly influenced his later career as a filmmaker. He attended the American School in Paris, where he learned French as a second language, and accompanied his father to concerts, museums, and weekend and summer jaunts to St. Tropez and Cannes. While in school he took up painting and began to direct student plays.

After moving back to New York, Parks watched as his parents’ marriage crumbled. Estranged from his mother, Parks and his siblings, Toni and David, went to live with his father. In 1952 he graduated from high school in White Plains, New York. In an attempt to distance himself from the career path of his famous father, Parks worked for a time in the garment district of New York City, moving clothing racks. When he was photographing a story for Life magazine, however, Gordon Sr. offered his son the opportunity to spend a weekend hanging out with the infamous gang leader Red Jackson. The opportunity presumably had an effect on the inner-city realism that Parks later brought to his first feature film, Superfly.

In 1957 Parks was drafted into the U.S. Army. While stationed in Desert Rock, Nevada, his convoy truck broke down and he narrowly missed radiation exposure from a nearby atomic test. After six months of close observation, he was discharged from the army and returned to New York City. During the early 1960s Parks played guitar and sang folk music in bars and coffeehouses in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

Much of Parks’s professional life, however, was spent in the shadow of his father. Because their names are so much alike, many of Parks’s accomplishments have been mistakenly credited to his father. Commenting on their father-son relationship, Parks’s stepmother, Genevieve, noted in the film documentary Half Past Autumn that there was always a “certain air of competitiveness between the two.” Like his father, Parks developed a professional interest in photography, using the name Gordon Rogers for several years to distance himself from his birth name. In 1969 he was hired as a still photographer for the Marlon Brando film Burn and performed the same role on a more famous Brando film in 1972--The Godfather. Parks also worked as a cameraman on his father’s 1969 debut film, The Learning Tree. From these experiences, Parks learned much about making films. “I love movies, I’ve spent hours at movies, our generation is all movies,” he said in an interview. “I’ve lived with film all my life” (Oakland Post, 3 August 1972).

In 1972 Parks capitalized on his passion for movies by directing the action-thriller Superfly. The story of Priest, a drug pusher attempting to better his life, Superfly became noted for its gritty realism and its ability to elicit audience sympathy for its criminal antihero. Released on the heels of his father’s landmark 1971 detective drama, Shaft, the film was largely produced by black businessmen, using a black crew, on a shoestring budget of $500,000. Widely considered the zenith of the so-called blaxploitation films of the early 1970s, Superfly went on to gross tens of millions of dollars. The film sparked a huge commercial boom in black-themed films and catapulted the careers of a number of black directors. Critics have credited Parks with some of the film’s more interesting touches, including its steamy, risqué sex scene, the photographic black-and-white stills that appear toward the middle of the narrative, and the decision to foreground the film’s now-classic musical score composed by Curtis Mayfield. Superfly, however, unleashed a maelstrom of controversy about the moral direction of black films in Hollywood. While some critics saw it as a harsh and invigorating depiction of black urban life, others criticized the film for its romanticization of machismo, drug use, and crime.

Having moved to his horse ranch in the California Valley, Parks continued to direct films. In 1974 he helmed the lumbering Thomasine and Bushrod, starring Max Julien and Vonetta McGee. A black “Bonnie and Clyde” set at the turn of the twentieth century, the film recounts the story of Oklahoma thieves who steal from rich whites to give to poor people of color. His next film, Three the Hard Way (1974), starred the action heroes JIM BROWN, Fred Williamson, and Jim Kelly as a trio out to save the United States from a white-supremacist plot to taint the national water supply. In 1975 he directed Aaron Loves Angela, an inner-city update of the Romeo and Juliet story transformed into a black and Puerto Rican conflict, which was released just months before his father’s Leadbelly (see LEAD BELLY). Each of Parks’s releases faded into obscurity, either due to studio neglect or audience disinterest, and many critics felt that Parks had lost his artistic footing since Superfly.

In 1979 tragedy struck. Parks had just started an independent production company, African International Productions/Panther Film Company, and planned to make the first of three films on the African continent. On 3 April 1979 he died in Kenya when his plane crashed in an aborted takeoff on the runway of the Nairobi airport. After his cremation, some of his ashes were left in Africa and the rest brought back to New York City, where services were held at the United Nations’ Chapel. At the time of Parks’s death, his wife, Leslie, was pregnant with his first child, Gordon III.

Even in death, newspaper and radio reports mistakenly announced that Gordon Parks Sr. had been killed, and bibliographical accounts still often confuse the two men.

Further Reading

Bogle, Donald. Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films (1989).
Kovel, Mikel J. Blaxploitation Films (2001).
Parks, Gordon, Sr. Half Past Autumn: A Retrospective (1997).
_______. Voices in the Mirror: An Autobiography (1990).
Obituary: Jet, 19 Apr. 1979.

Jason King

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