Kim and I are sidling up to the hors d'oeuvres, martinis in hand (Joe, our trusty bodyguard hovering protectively in the background), when who do we virtually bump into but HBO's reigning docu-queen, our own executive producer of Radio Sex TV and Real Sex, the vibrant, brilliant and beloved Sheila Nevins.
Though Sheila has overseen the production of multiple Emmy and Oscar-winning documentaries on everything important from cancer to the holocaust, she often notes that she is equally fond of her "pussy films" (like ours). But tonight she is here at the Museum of Tolerance as the executive producer of Half Past Autumn a documentary on the extraordinary life and works of Gordon Parks.
"Susan, you're becoming a documentary groupie," Sheila observes as we air-kiss. What does she think, that I only like porn flicks?
"I've always loved documentaries," I remind HBO's Senior Vice President of Late Night and Documentary Programming. "I prefer the real to the ideal. I'm proud to be a documentary groupie."
I'm also hungry after a full day of meeting with LAPD internal investigation detectives and attorneys regarding our LAPD raid and Adelphia censorship battles, so those canapes are looking mighty tasty. Kim and I scarf down a plateful, then make our way over to the star of the evening, the extraordinary, multi-talented American "cultural treasure" himself, Gordon Parks.
At the moment, his remarkable talents as photographer, filmmaker, writer, poet, musician and composer are taking a backseat to his forté as lady's man. Though pushing 90, Mr. Parks smiles generously and winks flirtaciously as Kim and I invite him to visit our erotic art gallery. Then, after hobnobbing with some of the resident stars (Richard Roundtree, Levar Burton, Alfre Woodard, Ming Smith as well as our Radio Sex TV producer Dave Bell, director Shari Cookson and editor Charleton McMillan), we all filed into the auditorium.
As executive producer, Sheila speaks about the joys of working with this extraordinary American Renaissance man whose diverse works have touched so many over the course of the 20th century. Then we watched the film itself, an unabashed docu-love poem for its main character, directed by Craig Rice and produced by Denzel Washington and St. Clair Bourne. The movie also explores America's social history through the life and work of an artist who has witnessed and documented so many watershed moments throughout the last 60 years.
As the film begins, we see that Parks' success is no credit to the American educational system. Though he's received numerous honorary degrees from prestigious universities, he never graduated high school. He was born in Kansas, the son of a dirt farmer. After his mother died when he was 15, Parks wandered as a homeless teenager. He got himself a camera (what Parks later pointedly refers to as his "choice of weapons") and, through wit, smarts, and improvisation, landed a job as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration, a Depression-era government agency. It was here that he shot his famous picture of cleaning lady Ella Watson (who actually worked in his office building) holding her broom and mop in front of the American flag, Parks' haunting spinoff on "American Gothic"
Shortly after that, with talent, charisma and against all odds for an African-American in the 1940s, Parks found himself shooting the most beautiful women in the world for the fashion pages of Vogue.
Then, with his newfound skill and implacable moxie, he got himself the job of a lifetime, taking pictures for Life Magazine. It was at Life that Parks, the first African-American photographer on staff, shot some of his most important photographic works of art. The film looks into the surrounding circumstances of several, including his photos of segregation in the American South, the gangs of Harlem, the slums of Brazil, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.
Parks was also a pioneering African-American film director, beginning with The Learning Tree, based on his autobiographical novel about growing up in Kansas. He then directed the popular 1971 "blaxploitation" film Shaft, an attempt, he said, to give blacks a positive role model in the title character, a charismatic detective.
As if being an accomplished photographer, filmmaker and novelist is not enough, Parks is also a proficient musician and composer. Never formally schooled in the musical arena either, he picked up piano as a boy and later--between photographs--went on to compose a symphony, sonatas, concertos, and a ballet on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
One of the most powerful feelings the film conveys is Parks' genuine love and concern for the people he works with, especially the ones he photographs. He doesn't just take their pictures. He participates in their lives--from his love affair with socialite Amy Vanderbilt to his ongoing involvement in the difficult, poverty-stricken life of Flavio DaSilva, a man whom Parks photographed for Life when he was a tuberculosis ridden-child living the hardest of lives in the slums of Rio. Parks has kept in touch with DaSilva for some forty years. Through this and other stories, Parks and the filmmakers make us see how true love can be a part of great art.
Parks never perfected the art of love in his personal life (who does?), as his many ex-wives and children attest to in the film. I imagine that this PG-rated documentary leaves out most of the many girlfriends Parks must have had. The film does show he was no stranger to personal tragedy when his son Gordon Parks, Jr., director of another blaxpoitation classic Superfly, was killed in a plane crash.
Parks' is not a life of perfection. His is a life of production. Not empty production for its own sake, but production with profound effects upon many people's lives.
Whew! What an inspiration. As we leave the Museum of Tolerance, Kim and I resolve to diversify even more here at the Institute. And to make sure that Kim's multi-talented six-year-old daughter Samantha (who just met Parks at a retrospective of his work now appearing at LA's African American Museum) sees as much of Half Past Autumn as she'll sit still for when it airs on HBO.
"Half Past Autumn: The Life and Works of Gordon Parks" premieres on HBO Thursday, November 30 at 9 PM.
Get Gordon Parks'
Amazing New Book of Collected Works
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