Making that awkward transition from a boy to a man isn’t easy for any member of the male species. For some, the changeover never fully occurs (if at all) — and a few lads go through life as manchildren, to wit they find easy employment in the field of comedy or politics. Other fellers, though, are forced to grow up all too quickly in life. Now, imagine going through that whole difficult evolution in life as a poor African American boy in rural Kansas in the 1920s, amid the racial intolerance that was lawfully permissible at that point in time.
Based on photographer/author/poet/musician/activist Gordon Parks’ 1963 book by the same name, The Learning Tree presents such a story. Here, we witness the plight of Newt Winger from that of a young naïve adolescent into a slightly-less naïve adult. As the story progresses, Newt (Kyle Johnson) loses his virginity during a tornado (?), sees one of his friends senseless gunned down by the community’s bigoted sheriff (Dana Elcar), finds true love, grows apart from his ever-delinquent-esque friends, and finds himself struggling to put up with the narrow-mindedness of Whitey’s World.
In 1969, Warner Bros./Seven Arts Productions commissioned a film adaptation of Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel, and made some industry history in the process by hiring the first African American director for a major studio motion picture. Ever the do-it-yourselfer, Parks even served as a producer as well as penning his own script and soundtrack. Unfortunately, despite his gift for storytelling, Parks had only ever worked on a couple of documentaries; hence, his direction with The Learning Tree isn’t as refined as it was when he directed the original Shaft two years later.
But his direction wasn’t the only thing that needed some polishing here. Several shots go on a bit too long, even when all of the “action” (it’s a pretty slow flick, folks) has stopped. Dialogue tends to be delivered in a very stiff manner — almost as if some of the actors (or non-actors as it were with some of the performers) were afraid they were going to break themselves if they tried too hard. Parks also appears to have eviscerated his own story so much that he omitted the introductions to several minor characters — only to throw them in later on in the film (the same goes for a few subplots by the looks of it).
While these minor technical flaws may tend to distract some modern viewers, older audiences will be able to appreciate The Learning Tree for what it is: an important — if dated — look at a time that has gone, but of a topic that is still very much alive. Previously only available on home video via VHS, The Learning Tree makes its long overdue digital debut courtesy the Warner Archive Collection: a series of catalogue titles that are made-to-order on DVD-R and available at www.warnerarchive.com.
Though it hasn’t been remastered, I must say that The Learning Tree looks exceptionally fine in its present form — showing very little print damage and boasting a pretty decent palette and contrast overall (especially for a Standard Def presentation). The film is presented in an anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1 ratio and with an adequate 2-Channel Stereo soundtrack. Like many other Warner Archive Collection titles, there aren’t any subtitles or Special Features to be found with this release.
The Learning Tree is one of those movies that will either really inspire you leave you feeling a bit insipid. Parks’ feature film debut was probably one of the first of its kind (if not the first) to portray black people in a positive light. Our young hero is not only educated, but refrains from going the “Stepin Fetchit” route: making self-depreciating jokes or saying “Hep me!” throughout the whole picture (something that was very unheard of back then), etc.
It’s a film that everyone should see at least once — no matter what color your skin may be — just to appreciate the film’s historical value and content if nothing else. Or to see character actor Dub Taylor turn in a cameo; one or the other.