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Thursday, June 25, 2015

June 25, 2015: Gordon Parks and America: Shaft

[Earlier this year, I had the chance to visit an amazing photography exhibition at Boston’s Musuem of Fine Arts: Gordon Parks: Back to Fort Scott. In this series, I’ll use that exhibition as a starting point for highlighting some of the many ways Parks’s career and life illuminate late 20th century American history and culture. Add your thoughts, whether you’ve seen the exhibition or not, in comments!]
On how Parks helps us analyze the problems and the possibilities of Blaxsploitation.
Only two years after he directed the deeply personal film The Learning Tree (1969), Gordon Parks was back behind the camera for a very, very different kind of ground-breaking film: Shaft (1971). With this hugely successful film and its sequel, Shaft’s Big Score! (1972), which he also directed, Parks helped usher in one of the 1970s most prolific and profitable film genres, Blaxploitation. Richard Roundtree’s badass private detective John Shaft was quite literally one of the principal archetypes for most of the decade’s Blaxploitation heroes and heroines, as well as inspiring iconic action hero types and images that have endured long beyond the waning of Blaxploitation as a genre—all of which means that his work directing the first two Shaft films could be seen as among the most influential and enduring cultural efforts of Parks’s long and impressive career.
Which, I can’t lie, is a really frustrating sentence to write. How on earth could a photographer who spent more than half a century documenting identities and lives, communities and histories, from FSA portraits to Pittsburgh steel workers, New York City fashion to the Jim Crow South, be best known as the director of a film featuring lines like “Where the hell are you going, Shaft?” “To get laid, where the hell are you going?” or (from Isaac Hayes’s mega-hit theme song) “Who’s the black private dick/That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?” Following on the potent effects and meanings of the Civil Rights Movement and its era, a period that Parks’s photographic works could be said to have helped usher in and in which he participated significantly in any case, 1970s Blaxploitation films can feel at best extremely silly, and at worst exactly as exploitative of serious issues of race and community (among many others) as the name suggests. And Gordon Parks helped create them.
I’m not going to pretend that I’ve got a clear pro-Blaxploitation perspective to reveal here, but I will say this: that last sentence, the fact that Parks did contribute so fully to the development of Blaxploitation as a genre, does in and of itself comprise an argument for taking the genre more seriously. This was an artist, after all, who consistently and crucially innovated, not only in his photographic career but also and just as fully in his film contributions (among other efforts). And here is another innovation, another cultural form that Parks helped create and popularize, another representation of African American and American lives and communities that he brought to wide and enduring audiences. That this representation has its flaws and limitations, that it needs response and analysis, that it leaves out certain stories and exaggerates or misrepresents others, only means that it’s a cultural form like any other, as complex and human as all the people on whom Parks’s portraits focused. And like those portraits, the Shaft films comprise another successful, vital stage in the very American career and life of Gordon Parks.
Last Parks connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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