Directed By: Gordon Parks
Starring: Kyle Johnson, Alex Clarke, Estelle Evans
Trivia: Director Gordon Parks also wrote the novel this movie was based on
Directed by Gordon Parks (who also penned the novel it’s based on), The Learning Tree was the first major Hollywood movie helmed by an African American, and while it shines a light on race relations as they existed in the early part of the 20th century, it’s primarily the story of a young man named Newt (Kyle Johnson) who’s forced to make a decision that could tear his world apart.
Kansas, 1920. Newt, who comes from a loving family, spends most of his time hanging out with friends and going to school. Marcus (Alex Clarke) is the same age as Newt, yet leads a much different life. Ignored by his alcoholic father (Richard Ward), Marcus gets himself into trouble and ends up in prison, where he’s beaten on a regular basis. While Newt experiences all that life has to offer, Marcus is consumed with hatred for everyone and everything. Their paths will eventually cross, resulting in a showdown that threatens to destroy them both.
I first saw The Learning Tree about 20 years ago, and it left an indelible impression on me. From a technical standpoint, The Learning Tree is beautifully shot, kicking things off with a perfectly realized storm sequence; as Newt is walking through a field, we notice a strange cloud formation directly behind him, and when he stops to admire an ant hill, the sky turns black and the wind kicks up, signifying a tornado has just touched down. Newt injures his leg while trying to run, and is pulled to safety by Mabel (Carol Lamond), one of his neighbors. The Learning Tree features a number of gorgeous scenes (including one where two men on horseback ride into a setting sun), but this opening sequence is arguably the best.
In contrast to its beautiful imagery, The Learning Tree occasionally delves into some ugly territory, focusing on the racial tensions that simmer under the surface of this otherwise peaceful community. For the most part, whites and blacks co-exist without incident, but there are times when tempers flare up. In an early scene, Marcus convinces Newt and his friends to help him steal apples from an orchard owned by Jake Kiner (George Mitchell). When Jake catches them in the act, he begins to whip Marcus, at which point Marcus grabs the whip and beats Jake over the head with it, putting the old man in the hospital. While Newt and the others get off with a warning (at his mother’s insistence, Newt volunteers to work at Jake’s farm free of charge), Marcus is sent to prison, where a racist guard makes his life a living hell. Newt also has his run-ins with prejudice; when his teacher, Miss McClintock (Peggy Rea) learns that Newt wants to attend college, she tells him not to waste his time, and that he’d be better off becoming a porter or waiter. While Newt’s resolve is strengthened by such adversity, Marcus is transformed into a bitter, angry young man.
Ultimately, though, The Learning Tree is Newt’s story, during which he learns about death (Newt witnesses the shooting of a black man by a racist sheriff, and is tormented by nightmares of the dead man’s face), love (his relationship with the pretty Arcella Jefferson is put to the test), and even sex (after pulling him to safety during the storm, Mabel takes advantage of Newt’s weakened state and has her way with him). Eventually, Newt will witness a terrible crime committed by a black man (Marcus’ father) but blamed on a white one. If he comes forward and tells the truth, there’s a chance the white population will turn on the blacks, causing even more tension than there already is. If he remains silent, an innocent man will be put to death. Either way, his life will never be the same again.
As provocative as it is touching, The Learning Tree is a powerful motion picture.