Judge Gordon Sullivan once planted a tree that learned to do algebra.
It's the place where you come to learn what life is all about.
Numerous pieces of art have come out of the struggle for African American civil rights, and they can be grouped broadly into two categories: those that assert a separate identity for the African race, and those that try to show a common humanity between black and whites. The Learning Tree sits strongly in the latter camp as a coming-of-age tale of a young black boy in Kansas of the 1920s. It's the first film from Gordon Parks (who would go on to fame with Shaft), and, more significantly, the first Hollywood studio film directed by an African American. Released during the racial tensions of the late 1960s, The Learning Tree is a landmark of African American (and, consequently American) cinema. Though I'm grateful to the Warner Archive Collection for making this film available to a wider audience, I can't help but feel it deserves a stronger edition than this one.
Newt is a teenager who spends his free time bumming around with his friend Marcus. Though Newt is a levelheaded kid with no time for hate, Marcus is a firecracker who can't leave well enough alone. Things come to a head when Newt accidently witnesses Marcus' father committing a murder. His struggle with the decision about whether to testify or not could break his friendship and tear his small town apart.
I don't want to downplay at all the importance of The Learning Tree as a landmark of Hollywood cinema because of the choice to focus on black characters and their struggles. This is a film that doesn't sugarcoat racism, but it also doesn't show it as the lone defining characteristic of its characters. The fact of Gordon Parks as writer/director/composer/producer is also striking, and almost certainly contributed to the Library of Congress choosing The Learning Tree for preservation in the National Film Archive.
All that would be immaterial, if The Learning Tree wasn't a good film. Luckily, Gordon Parks steps behind the camera and immediately hits one out of the park. From the film's opening with a portentous tornado (symbolizing the storm about enter young Newt's life) to the final moments of violence that Newt is powerless to change, the film is beautifully done. This is a coming-of-age story that plays as an honest look at what it means to grow up and assume the responsibilities of adulthood (which always seems to come too early). It's absolutely in the tradition of other works like To Kill a Mockingbird or Where the Red Fern Grows in depicting the kinds of loss that shape us as human beings.
The Learning Tree, though, is not quite universal. In fact, one of the things that make it interesting is the fact that it is located in a particular time and place in the past, both for us now and for those first viewers in 1969. The film also depicts a particular kind of growing up that is likely to resonate with rural viewers. Early scenes that included Newt and his friends stealing apples definitely put me in mind of my childhood (though in my case it was oranges, not apples), and this kind of activity is particular to a certain region. Whether some viewers identify with Newt or not based on geography, the film is resolute in asserting his humanity and the importance of his growing up.
The Learning Tree is being released as part of the Warner Archive Collection. That means the company has done minimal clean up on a number of its catalog titles and made them available in stripped-down versions at a lower price point, printed on demand on DVD-Rs. Although The Learning Tree doesn't have the look of a fully restored film from that era, its widescreen image looks largely free of print damage, and the authoring of the disc was careful to avoid compression problems. The film stocks of the era give a certain look to the picture, and the warmer colors are well represented. The mono soundtrack keeps dialogue and Parks' music clear, with no distracting hiss or distortion. There are no extras.
The Learning Tree is a bit of a period piece, and may not appeal to viewers looking for action-packed cinematic thrills. It's also sad that the film isn't being resurrected with the grand release its historical place deserves. Sadly Parks has passed on, but there must be some material somewhere that would provide context, not to mention interview opportunities with the cast and crew. However, in the choice between having this edition or nothing at all, this release is the obvious choice.
The Learning Tree belongs in the upper tier of coming-of-age tales. With a strong, well acted story and compelling characters, the film deserves a larger audience. Although this Warner Archive disc isn't brimming with extras, hopefully the film's availability will lead it to the audience it deserves.
I don't know where The Learning Tree is, but it's not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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