A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks (2021) - full transcript

Follows Gordon Parks' stellar career from staff photographer for LIFE magazine, through his artistic development photographing everyday Americans, through his evolution as a novelist and groundbreaking filmmaker.

He is a famous photographer,

the only Negro cameraman
on LIFE magazine.

He's a composer, an author,
and a film director.

Among his friends
in the world of liberal arts,

he's a success in his own right,
accepted on that basis.

But he is still a Negro living
in America.

Not every White American
has heard

of the famous Gordon Parks.

When I walked
into LIFE magazine, that uh,

18 years ago...

You see, a Negro...
Put it like this.

A Negro builds up
a double defense.

When you are a kid,
you have to prepare

to be able to do much more
than a White boy,

so that if the time comes

where your talent
is pitted against a White man,

you will get the nod because
they can't afford to lose you.

The term,
"living in a White man's world"

is one
I don't particularly like.

A lot of Negroes use it,
a lot of Whites use it.

But I consider this my world.

♪ This world
Is going up in flames ♪

♪ And nobody
Wanna take the blame ♪

- Hands up! Don't shoot!
- Hands up! Don't shoot!

♪ Don't tell me
How to live my life ♪

♪ When you
Never felt the pain ♪

♪ Oh, oh, oh ♪

♪ Ooh!
They don't hear me cry ♪

♪ Ooh!
Oh, it's killing me ♪

♪ A better world, oh baby! ♪

♪ Gotta make it baby
Gotta make it right ♪

♪ Baby! Oh! ♪

Let's go, let's go,
let's go, let's go, let's go.

I only can imagine
if Gordon Parks was alive now.

What he would be able to do.

You know, to talk
about these serious issues.

Always something
going on around here.

There you go, shorty.

I had to make a lot
of mistakes, you know,

to get to where I am now.

I was hustling,
and I was in the streets.

I lost like my first friend
at like 16, 17,

due to gun violence, and that
kind of, like, changed my world.

I wanted to really pursue art.

So I would go
to Barnes & Noble,

and just, like, have all these
photography books out.

And I just would, like,
sit and look at Gordon's work,

if it was him
shooting his stuff in Harlem.

The story, the gang...

that's still going
on to this day.

I was like, "So I can
shoot all these things too.

I'ma get me a camera."

So it started off as
just a personal journey...

...but as I got deep
into my career,

that's when I really
started realizing

how powerful an image can be.

'Cause my career
is literally built on

the broken back of Freddie Gray.

The 25-year-old
falls into a coma

at shock trauma
and dies seven days later.

Freddie! Freddie! Freddie!

I knew how my city was,

and the energy that was, like,
kinda vibrating.

So I just took to the streets.

No justice,
no peace! No racist police!

When everything
really hit the fan

is when we were down
in Camden Yards,

and all the police were worried
about the fact

that we had an Orioles game.

Some fans at the bars were
actually calling us the N-word,

they were calling us monkeys.

And that's what actually
started everything.

And this guy runs past,
and he throws something,

and I just snapped the picture.
I don't think nothing of it.

I remember
just uploading the image

while all of this was going on,
saying, "We're sick and tired."

And around
that time, I get like

a blocked call come through,
and he is like,

"This is Olivier
from TIME magazine.

I wanted to talk to Devin Allen
about his work in Baltimore.

What publication are you with?"

I'm like,
"I'm not with no publication."

And I told them my story,
and we did a blog from it.

I go to sleep. I wake up,

and I just see all these, like,
tweets. And it says,

"Amateur photographer
from West Baltimore

snags the cover
of TIME magazine."

And I just burst out in tears,
and I call my mother,

and she burst out in tears,

and my whole family
is just crying.

For the first time, I understood
what Gordon was talking about,

that the camera
is a real weapon,

and I realized how powerful
I am with a camera in my hand.

I might have turned eventually

to the gun or the knife
as a weapon to survive,

but by then
I had chosen the camera.

Photography was the way in which
I could express my own feelings

about racism in America,

about the downtrodden.

And somehow or another, I might

transcend my own experience.

I live off of my emotions,
perhaps, you know.

And so I had
turned those emotions

into some mercenary thing,
by which I could survive.

What distinguishes Gordon Parks

from a lot of other artists
is that he had

a quintessentially authentic
Black experience.

I mean, he was
the child of Black people

who had fled enslavement.

Growing up in Kansas,

to be proximate to lynching
and racial terrorism,

to understand the weight

that people of color
felt in these spaces

where you had
to basically be two people.

One person around White people

that would keep you safe,

and another person
with your family.

I think just gave him an insight
to the Black narrative.

Boy, they sure are having
a good ol' time

over there at that crap game.

Kansas itself offered you
freedom on one hand,

and on the other hand, it was
trying to take it away from you.

Tuck! Tuck! Kirky's coming!

Run, Tuck, run!

Stop damn it, I'll shoot!

Four or five
of my closest friends

had died through violence.

About four people
were shot to death.

My mother wanted me
out of there.

She knew it was a
dangerous place for me to live.

Gordon lived a wandering life
as a young person.

He gets a job as a waiter

on the dining car
of the Northern Pacific.

I had great expectations,
you know.

I thought I was going
to conquer a new world.

He had to go through getting
kicked off of the trains.

He had to go through
hanging out with the bums.

He had to go through all these
different forms of life,

but when you're traveling
around the world

and you're in a place where
you've never been before,

the first thing
that you have to do is observe.

And the more you observe,

the more you understand
what's going on around you.

He would ride the trains
and pick up the magazines,

and look at imagery and be
informed behind that.

Having an opportunity to go to
different cities,

under some
really harsh conditions,

just to survive
and being amongst the filth

and the drunkenness
and addiction.

Luckily for him,
he was able to get that camera.

He's teaching
himself photography

by reading, uh,
training manuals.

His studio
was the kitchen of his home,

and his lights
were made from tin cans.

That's how Gordon Parks
started out, you know,

making pictures and then
selling them to the newspaper.

When Black photographers began

capturing African American life,

it created a new relationship

for Black people
to their own identity.

When Gordon Parks came along,
he found value and interest

and art in the lives
of ordinary people.

At a time and in a society

where Black people
were told far too often

that we're criminals,
that we're ugly,

that we're less worthy

to have the spotlight on us
for any reason,

Gordon put a lens
and a light on us for ourselves.

And allowed us to see
the elegance of the lives

that we live and the places
where we are.

In January 1942,
Parks receives word

that he's been
awarded a fellowship

to work for a year at

the Farm Security Administration
in Washington.

The purpose of the FSA
was to resettle American farmers

who had lost their land
during the Dust Bowl.

It set up a unit
of photographers and filmmakers

who could help to document
what they were doing.

It was run by a man by
the name of Roy Stryker.

Many of the
photographers who shot for

the Farm Security Administration
become heroes for Gordon Parks,

and he's really interested in
the process and their approach.

And so his idea is,
"Let me go out there,

and let me
mentor under Roy Stryker."

He was the one who taught me

that when you are doing a story,

it's not for you
to accept the people,

but the people to accept you.

Because you are going
into their presence,

asking them to help you.

Roy Stryker actually
introduces Gordon Parks

to the cleaning woman,

who cleans the offices in
the Agriculture Department.

A woman by
the name of Ella Watson.

He photographs her at work,

sweeping floors,
cleaning the offices.

In one office,
there's an American flag

hanging on the wall.

Here is a woman

who in some ways
is the backbone of America...

yet she is standing
in front of a flag,

in front of an America
that didn't believe in her.

Gordon Parks
is one of my heroes.

Ella Watson.

This photograph, to me,
talks about

how our ancestors,

from 1619,

when that first slave ship hit
Jamestown, Virginia.

We have fought and died
for this country.

We have loved this country, but
the love has not been returned.

That's what
this photograph says to me.

Then I thought of Grant Wood
and American Gothic.

I said,
"Take this broom in one hand,

take this mop in the other,

and stand before that
American flag."

I blew it up the next morning,

put it on Stryker's desk,
and he nearly fainted.

He said, "Oh my God, you're
going to get us all fired."

She's standing in front
of the American flag...

in a society, a nation,
and a government

that doesn't recognize her
as a full human being.

I made a very innocent,
bold, outrageous statement.

You know, it reminds me
of the Malcolm X quote,

"The most hated,
the most mistreated,

and the most abused person
in America is the Black woman."

There it is right there,
written on her face.

Parks continues
to photograph Ella Watson.

He worked with her
for a period of weeks.

He photographs her at church,
he photographs her neighborhood.

There is one amazing photograph

that he makes
of Ella Watson at home.

The photograph is divided
right down the middle,

and you see Ella Watson
on the left side,

helping to feed
one of the young kids.

On the right side of the picture
there is a mirror,

and her adopted daughter is
reflected in the mirror.

You can see, also a photograph,

it's a photograph
of Ella Watson's parents.

So you're actually seeing four
generations of this family,

all in one photograph

that's composed in a very
sophisticated way.

the turning point for him.

It's there,
through this project,

that he understands
how important it is

to get to know his subject.

To really try and depict
the humanity

of the subjects
that he is photographing.

This is his way
of holding on to me,

and I don't spend
enough time with him.

He says, "I got you now,
can't go nowhere."

- "What do you mean?"
- Yeah,
what you been doing?

Leave me out here all by myself.

Look this way,
Mr. Smiley.

When I read
Gordon's autobiography,
A Choice of Weapons,

I mean, everything
that he went through

to define himself
on his own terms

and to say with the camera,

"This is how I am going
to make my mark and change

all the things that I don't like
about America, right."

It stays with me
because I grew up

living in a dilapidated house
next to the railroad

in an industrial small town,

watching everyone kind of
disappear and the city shrink

and have all our basic
human rights stripped from us.

I found the ability
to cope and move forward
through art.

Right, it started out being
drawings and paintings

and then eventually moving
into photography.

Those photographs
are what enabled me

to save my own life.

In 2016, I was commissioned
by ELLE magazine

and Hearst Corporation
to produce a photo essay

about the Flint water crisis.

It's not safe
to drink the water
in Flint, Michigan.

Flint disconnected
its water supply through Detroit

and began drawing water
from the Flint River instead.

Highly corrosive
river water flowed through
the city's lead pipes,

leaching lead into
the water supply.

That's how
Shea Cobb and I met

and how I've built
this very robust friendship.

It was for several months
that I was photographing Shea

and her
eight-year-old daughter, Zion.

And Shea was faced
with having to decide

to protect
her daughter's health,

and the issue with lead is,
in an eight-year-old child,

it's going to
leach into their brain.

It couldn't have been
more than a week

that I was photographing
Shea in Flint.

She said her father
sent her something.

And it's a picture of
her at the age of 12,

taking her first sip of water
from a freshwater spring

on the land where
her father lives in Mississippi,

with a message that said,

"This water won't kill you.
Come home."

And so she makes the
decision to leave her mother

and make the reverse migration
back to the South,

where her father lives,

on land that his family
has always owned.

Oh wow!
He's gotten so much bigger.

This is the one that
I was seeing that was a baby?

When I started doing
karate moves, like to practice,
he thinks he can do it,

so he holds onto stuff
and then fell flat on his butt.

So I returned to Mississippi

to continue a body of work

that I'm committed to
with Shea Cobb,

her daughter Zion,
who's now 12,

and Shea's father,
Mr. Doug Smiley.

Thank you, Lord, for this food
and all of our many blessings.

- Thank you.
- Amen.

And so it was
a tumultuous time
to enter into Shea's life,

and she didn't
have to trust me,

but I think
it goes back to Gordon.

You need to be present

and talk to people
for as long as it takes.

I get to know the person that is
the main subject of the work,

and I learn to empathize...

and also allow their feelings
to guide me through

the landscape that they inhabit.

This was, you know,
a real lesson

about not only empathizing

but listening and taking
the instructions
and allowing the images

to be authored by someone else.

that's a real collaboration.

And I also knew
to take those cues

because I had been
closely looking at Ralph Ellison

and Gordon Parks's collaboration
in the late '40s.

Ralph Ellison wrote
Invisible Man.

I did a story on the need
of psychiatric treatment
in Harlem.

Ellison actually
writes a manifesto

for Gordon Parks
titled the "Pictorial Problem."

He wants
the photographs to function

as both document and symbol.

And this phrase becomes
a kind of guiding principle

for Gordon Parks's
entire career.

This idea that photographs
can transcend what is
just being depicted.

Ellison details a list
of certain kinds of images

that he would like
Parks to make.

Images that psychologically
impact the viewer.

The feeling of a place

and the feeling of being robbed
and dehumanized...

in an undulating poetic
visual way.

Later in 1952,
Parks approaches Ralph Ellison.

Ellison had just published
Invisible Man,

and he says, "Let's create
another collaboration

to celebrate the publication."

They go out on
the streets once again
and they create photographs

that represent nearly
every single scene in the book.

This picture could
have been taken during slavery.

We're all tryna watch out

for the motherfuckin'
slave catchers.

And my brother here
ran off the plantation.

And he's running for his life.

Parks takes the portfolio
of images that he shot

for his collaboration
with Ralph Ellison in 1948

to LIFE magazine,

to pitch them a story
about a Harlem gang leader.

LIFE magazine
was the Bible.

People read the newspapers,
listened to the radio.

But for many people,
it really was LIFE magazine
that helped them understand

what was going on in America.

I met the picture editor,

who offered me
the great sum of 500 dollars

to do the Harlem gang story.

When I walked out of there,
I was frightened.

How do you walk in and ask
the gang leader to let me
photograph your life

when he's hiding
from the police?

I used the broad approach

when I first went up
to the police precinct

and asked one of the detectives
if they knew such a gang leader.

And they said,
"Yeah, we know plenty of them,

but none of them gonna
let you photograph them."

While I was in the precinct,
a young man walked in,

and he literally cursed
the desk sergeant out
about something.

And so I said
to my detective friend,
"Who is that guy?"

He said, "That is
the most notorious gang leader
in all of Harlem."

His name was Red Jackson.

I told him
I was from LIFE magazine.

I want to do a story on him,
very bluntly, you know.

That's the way I got
into that story.

I didn't take pictures
in the beginning.

I just sort of sat with them
on the stoop in Harlem

in the hot summer days
and listened to their talk.

So one day he just said,

"When are you going
to use your camera?"

I said, "Oh, you know,
anytime something happens."

This is like what he learned
from the Farm Security
Administration project

he does with Ella Watson.

He knows that he has to get
to know somebody really well

and spend time with them.

Red was a little apprehensive,

but they built
this great bond with each other,

and Gordon recognized
his leadership ability,

and they developed
a really unique relationship.

I stayed with his gang
about three months.

He photographed Red
in his everyday life.

Being with his mother
in the kitchen cooking,

washing the dishes,

sitting with his brother while
his brother was reading.

His goal was
to create a story

from an insider point of view.

He added levels of complexity

and levels of understanding,
that you might not have gotten
in other photography.

No one's a gangster
24 hours a day.

Everyone who is a gangster
has a family.

He also photographs him
out on the streets...

with members of his gang.

He photographs
fights and violence.

So it's a really interesting
look at the life of a young,

you know, gang leader.

Two boys were killed
while I was with him.

There's one picture in
the LIFE story of Herbie
lying in his coffin.

He'd been stabbed in the neck
and parts of his head.

And Red picked Herbie's head up
and felt the wounds,

and said, "We're going
to do the same thing to them."

I think that Gordon saw
himself in Red Jackson.

Because if Gordon didn't pick
up the camera,

he could have
easily been Red Jackson.

He just saw a young man
that had a lot of potential.

He was a leader.
He saw he didn't have a father.

At the same time,
trying to show him in a light

that will illuminate some
of the problems
that existed in Harlem

in regards to poverty
and gang warfare and injustice.

How y'all feeling today?

I like that outfit there,
young man.

Can I borrow that jacket? Wow,
I like that haircut too, troop.

Who hooked you up?
All right, here we go.

I'm gonna say showtime,
and let's do it.

You guys are ready?

'Cause I think you guys are
gonna be famous.

All right, here we go. Ready?

- All right, look at me.
I think you guys got it.

Gordon spoke about
the power of photography
and imagery

and how you could use the
camera as a weapon.

It's through
the photography that I want
to really express myself.

That gave me a voice
'cause prior to that I was lost.

I fell victim to the streets,
but once I picked up the camera,

it became my compass.

I have a tool that I can use,

not only to document
the community

but to save lives
at the same time.

Gordon spoke
about the 35 millimeter

and how it could be
a more effective weapon.

And that really resonated
with me

because I grew up
in a gun culture,

you know with the
nine millimeters.

It was the empathy that he had
for his subjects

that I thought was
really powerful.

You had Red Jackson,
his difficult life coming up.

Gordon just wanted
to be like a mentor and a guide.

I spent 20 years in
the Department of Corrections.

When the opportunity came
to work on Rikers Island,

I accepted it
as my new assignment.

Crack is causing an increase in
murder and other violent crime.

This is right around
the same time

that the crack epidemic hit.

So now I'm in this space,

and I'm seeing
the impact of drugs

and the lack of

I'm taking my camera
to the job every day.

I'm documenting
the world inside.

I'm witnessing
brutality and hatred.

I felt it was my responsibility
to talk to young people

about what was going on

because a lot of young men
were dying

at the hands of other young men.

And I was very troubled by
what I was seeing.

So I would place myself
in different positions

where young people would be at,
and I would approach them.

If I saw a group, I would look
at the leader and say,

"You know, with all due respect,
I'm a photographer,

when I look at you,
I see greatness.

If you don't mind, I'd like to
take a photograph

of you and your crew."

And then I would start
posing them.

And then
they would create poses.

and the poses gave it life.

Once the film roll
was completed, I would put
the film in the shop,

I would come back in an hour,
and I would go back to the

I would give out prints.

It let them know that
they weren't invisible.

As kids, we could
just tear each other down.

I use the camera
to build people up

and let people feel special.

A lot of them
were really receptive

to hearing what I was saying
'cause I'm speaking in real

Just a few hours ago,
I was on Rikers Island,

and I witnessed, you know,
people getting stabbed

and individuals that thought
that they can handle it,

and they couldn't.
And they would listen.

So I was trying to
encourage them to be better.
You know, I didn't want to see

no more
of these young men incarcerated.

I owe a lot of
where I'm at right now to Gordon

because we didn't have a lot
of Black photographers
to mirror,

you know, when I was coming up.
Gordon was that pathfinder.

LIFE magazine
is the headquarters

for photographer Gordon Parks

on the staff of the popular

pictorial news magazine
since 1949.

And a man who stands
at the top of his profession.

Because of the success of

"Harlem Gang Leader",
Parks was hired onto the staff

as the first African American
photographer at LIFE,

which was a really big deal.

This was entry into the media
that was seen internationally.

Parks's work
is amongst the finest
in a magazine,

noted for
photographic excellence.

By the mid-1950s,
Parks had already become,

for want of a better word,
very established.

He really does have
that internally solid

perseverance kind of
quality to him.

I've tried to use the camera

to sort of
correct the things that

I experienced as a young Black
man coming up in America.

And then with all that

Black people
were confronting at that point,

it requires a great deal
of temerity

to say that you're going
to change that with your camera.

In 1956, LIFE sent Gordon
to Alabama

to do a story about segregation
in the Jim Crow South.

Dispatches coming out
of the south

are the usual reporting
on racial violence.

In 1955, just months before

Gordon Parks traveled
to Alabama,

Emmett Till was
brutally tortured and killed

in Money, Mississippi.

If the death of my son
can mean something

to the other unfortunate people
all over the world,

then for him
to have died a hero

would mean more to me
than for him just to have died.

His mother Mamie allowed
Jet magazine to publish

the images of his defiled,
desecrated body.

I saw Emmett Till's
photograph in Jet magazine.

I'll never forget it.

I still get very emotional.

I was eight years old
when Emmett Till was murdered

and I didn't...
I... Wh... What...

What was that all about?
I couldn't understand it.

That photograph
was really evidence

of what could happen to you

as a Black person
in the deep South,

and that was the world
that Gordon Parks

was stepping into in 1956.

Gordon liked to embody
whatever subject

he had been asked
by his editors

to represent in a family.

Because he knew that the readers
of LIFE magazine

would be innately sympathetic
to the circumstances of a child,

of a family, and of a community.

Those photographs had
tremendous impact

partly because of the color.

At that time,
a searing photo essay
in the pages of LIFE

was practically expected
to be in black and white.

He wanted that color
to implicate people seeing this,

so that they would understand
this is your America right now.

People were told
that segregation was benign.

It's okay,
Black people want it.

That's not what you see

when you see his images
and the hurt and the exclusion

that these families present.

These children are
literally excluded by this fence

that they cannot pass.

Even from behind,

he's able to convey
their sense of longing

to be able
to go into that space.

He can take
something that's so negative,

but when you
first digest it and look at it,

before you start
to unpack everything,

it's like super warm, and it
just like blows you away.

I think he was really good
at even things

that might have been

uncomfortable for, as a
Black person to capture

but he has this thing where
the way he frames stuff,

it draws you in, and it makes
you wanna have a conversation.

There's an elegance.
Even, there's an elegance,

even to his
depictions of evil, basically.

It's her dress
that does it for me

and the earring, and the purse,
and the perfectly matched shoes.

She's a queen,

and yet she has
to have a separate entrance

from the White woman
in the red dress

that's further down the street.

Mrs. Joanne Wilson
was walking with her young niece

by a segregated movie theatre,

and the little girl
smelled popcorn.

I interviewed Mrs. Wilson
60 years after
that photograph was taken.

And she said,
"I was feeling a sense
of almost panic of what to do.

I wasn't going
to take my niece

into a segregated back entrance.
I wouldn't do it."

So I asked Mrs. Wilson

about the experience
of the shoot,

and I said, "Was there anything
about it that upset you

or bothered you?"
and she said,

and she loved Gordon,

and she said, "Yes.

When I looked at
the photograph, I realized that

the strap
of my slip had fallen.

I was a proud Black woman
in Alabama,

and I never left my house
not being dressed perfectly."

I understand how she felt,

but I don't think that Gordon
would have told her

to adjust the strap
because for him

it represented
something remarkable.

She was distracted.

You cannot be a mother
or even human

and not see that little moment
of drama in a photograph

and not feel a sense
of affiliation with Mrs. Wilson.

Gordon Parks's
photography demanded

that America look at itself.

His work did what art does
at its very best.

It makes the viewer
engage deeply in the subject.

And to see
narratives about life,

about our history.

So when you look at those
beautiful photographs,

what you saw was dignity

in the face of remarkable
discrimination and bigotry.

And rising...

You got to wait for him
to rise, folks.

Okay, now rise behind him.
You got to look for him.

One of the things
about Mr. Parks

that had been
really inspiring and informative

is the idea that
if I pick up my camera,

I can say something
and show something,

and that I will be heard,

and that it will be seen,
and a story will be told.


And that my camera gives me
the power to do that.

To think of the camera
as a weapon is a strong way

to think about it and something
that I have come to embrace.

Some of my favorite work
of his is in color.

There's something
about the color
that feels very painterly

in a way that's different
from the black and white.

I remember looking
at those photos,
and I look at them often.

They inform, even choices
that I make in cinematography

for my films.

There's a photo that I love.

It's a little boy
sitting in a field,

and he has an "X" on his head

that's like a target.

That image just says so much.

The rest, the relaxation,
the intimacy,

juxtaposed against the poverty.

We think of photography,
I think,

as like a solitary art practice.

It's the photographer
and their camera,

but really, they're in
relationship with their subject.

When I look at his work,
I think, "God!
How'd he get that?"

The ease and the intimacy

that comes through
in so much of his work.

The process with actors is
you're trying to achieve

the same ends of intimacy,
of a connection...


...of an understanding
of the material and each other,

so that you can get
to those true places.

Pent up emotions
and inattention

would have led
to an uncontrollable,

retaliatory situation.

Well done. We're good.
Looking good. Thank you.

The thing
for Black filmmakers is

for far too long
we've been relegated to

one set of tools, if any.

One of the things
about Mr. Parks is the ability

to work within many boxes
and to use many tools.

If one were
to look at the entirety

of Gordon Parks's career,

you would be struck by
the range of work that he did.

It's absolutely fascinating
how he's able to bounce around

from photojournalism
to fashion photography,

to portraiture, to abstraction,
and everything in between.

And yet somehow, it's all tied
together by his approach,

the idea
that he's fully invested

in every single one
of his subjects.

His whole thing was to be there

and have a point of view.
Definitely had a point of view

about Black liberation,
Black freedom,

White oppression, uh, fashion.

But not to impose
that in the environment,

to be able to be there

and find those moments where,
"Boom, boom, boom."

My mom and Gordon Parks met

on a photo shoot
for LIFE magazine.

She was gonna be
in a play called The Swan

and Gordon was
the photographer assigned to it.

They just instantly
sort of clicked.

My mom, I mean,
you couldn't have more
different circumstances,

she grew up obviously surrounded
by great wealth.

She said that this was the
first African American person

she really became friends with.

I think they did connect
as artists.

That was the beginning
of what would become

this extraordinary
lifelong friendship.

I always knew there was more
to their relationship

than he was just a family friend

who would spend weekends
out in Long Island with us.

But I knew Gordon's work

from the time I was a kid.
I followed it.

He had the ability
to tell other people's stories

and the ability to enmesh
yourself in somebody else's life

and to document it.

I just found that amazing.

Gordon was this guy
who could connect
with all of these people,

and not necessarily
be everyone's best friend,

but gain respect enough
to move in their spaces.

As a photographer, and I learned
myself as a journalist,

the ability to be there
and be present

but not to interfere.

To be able to sit back,

let it happen, observe closely
what's going on,

and find out what's
interesting about it.

He had that ability,
and it comes through

in all of his photography.

In 1957, LIFE sent Gordon

to photograph
the American crime crisis.

He represented
crime as an ambiguity.

It deracialized
the story of crime.

There were White criminals.
There were Black criminals.

He also showed
the humanity around crime.

It challenges this notion

that a criminal
is someone who is

entirely loathsome,
entirely evil.

There's an incredible
photograph of a prison cell.

You see a hand leaning over one
of the bars with a cigarette,

but on the bottom, you see
the hand grabbing the bar.

What you see is the anxiety

of the person behind bars.

Gordon was able
to tell both sides of the story.

Being able to go
into a police station

and shooting
from that perspective.

As an artist, we are the medium
between opposing sides,

and we are
the only ones that can actually

create that narrative
to even start a conversation.

You cannot be
a person of color

growing up in the urban north

and not be mindful
of the way in which

police officers were symbols.

They represented
threat and menace.

My cousins lived
in North Philadelphia,

and when we would go
spend time with them,

there was a
completely foreign environment.

And my cousin would say,

"If you see a gang coming down
one street

and you see the police
coming down another street,

both of them are dangerous,

but run toward the gang,
not toward the police."

And it wasn't because people
didn't want law and order.

They did. They just didn't want
it imposed through abuse.

And Parks got it, you know,
in the images presented.

That image where he shows
those police officers

crashing down a door,
gun in hand.

There's a kind of violence.

Can you imagine being
on the other side of this door?

So it's a really powerful image
to contradict this idea

that these are the people
who make us safe.

You know,
I see this and I think,

"Keep me as far away
from these guys as possible."

Using the rule of law
is certainly a way

to fight against
inequality and injustice.

But I have recognized
that that's not enough.

Now I see myself
very much engaged in...

in narrative work
and using narrative tools

to fight against
inequality and injustice,

and that's the reason why
it makes perfect sense to us

to build a museum.

The primary goal is to
tell a story about our history

that shakes people sufficiently.

You're motivated
to say, "Never again"

to racial bigotry and bias.

Gordon Parks became central

to the way we wanted
to talk about our imagery

and storytelling through

Narrative work is how Parks
changed hearts and minds.

You can change laws,

but if you don't, kind of,
work on people

and the psychology behind
bigotry and exclusion,

then you're not
gonna make any progress.

And Parks understood early
that he had a role to play

if we were gonna kind of
shape the things

that people believe
about equality.

You know,
as a photographer for LIFE,

you look at publications
like that.

And in this very subtle way,
this notion of

who is an American
was being reinforced.

Week after week,
month after month.

And so Parks's images
really disrupted that.

If you had to see
this Black family

in one of his photos

juxtaposed with
these White families

in these ads,

it caused you to kind of think
just a little differently.

It raised questions
about who is an American.

Gordon Parks
was often criticized

as much as he was applauded

for his position
at LIFE magazine,

and he was very aware of
being in a conflicted position.

He talks about how he was seen
as often going in

as LIFE's, quote,
"Black photographer,"

and creating stories
that were meant to appeal

to a White audience.

At the same time,
he understood that

when he was covering stories
that had to do with race,

that he was in a unique position

to tell those stories
from his point of view.

And a great example of that
was in 1963, when he was sent

to do a story about
the Nation of Islam.

is a White man's country.

A country
that was stolen by the White man

from the dark-skinned Indians,

who then kidnapped our people
and brought us here in chains.

I saw Malcolm for
the very first time in person

on the corner of 125th Street
and 7th Avenue.

There's no such thing
as justice in this country

for a Black man.

And there's no such thing
as equality in this country

for a Black man.

This is a White man's country!

The first thing I asked him
was about the possibility

of my covering
the Black Muslims.

And he said, "Well,
the honorable Elijah Muhammad

would have to decide that."

Malcolm and I flew
to Phoenix, Arizona.

The first thing Elijah Muhammad
said to me was,

"Why are you working
for the White devils?"

I said, "Well, you know,
you've heard of

getting behind the iron horse

and finding out
what's going on?"

He said, "I don't buy that."

Well, in any case,
he said, "We'll give you a try.

Brother Malcolm is
gonna escort you through

the world of Islam,
and if I like what you do,

I'll send you
a big box of cigars.

If I don't like what you do,
we'll be out to visit you."

And that's the way
Malcolm and I got started.

In the name of Allah,
the beneficent, the merciful,

to whom all praise is due.

Whom we forever thank
for giving us

the honorable Elijah Muhammad

as our leader,
teacher, and guide.

I found in the mosques
such order,

in just about everything.

Malcolm would walk
with a long stick

and point to a blackboard
and explain what Elijah Muhammad

expected of Muslims.

I was surprised to see them
training German Shepherd dogs.

Malcolm would look at me
and smile.

He says, "If they can face
that dog

with its vicious fangs,

they can face
a lot of other things."

I went into some of
the Muslim families.

I asked one father in Brooklyn,

I said, "Suppose your son came
home one day

and told you that he was
renouncing the Muslim religion."

He said, "I would turn him
from my door

and would
never allow him in again."

It was amazing,
the faith that they had

in Elijah Muhammad
and in Malcolm.

Gordon Parks
spends several months

with members
of the Nation of Islam.

It becomes a true collaboration

where Gordon Parks is allowed
unprecedented access.

I was in New York
when I got a call from Malcolm.

He had just reached
the Los Angeles Airport.

He said, "Can you get out here?"

The person, whom you have come

to know as Ronald Stokes,
we know him as brother Ronald.

And an innocent man
when he was murdered.

That's when
Ronald Stokes was shot.

Police had gone to the mosque,

and there'd been
some confrontation

with the young Muslims
out in front of the mosque.

These are the victims
of police bullets.

And it is the police who should
be on trial here in Los Angeles.

Malcolm wanted to show
the rest of the world

that these guys
were using brutality,

especially against Muslims.

They can go in
and murder unarmed,

innocent Negroes,

and the White public is
gullible enough to back them up.

Malcolm was
terribly angry,

as were a lot of Black people
who were not Muslims.

I was angry myself,
terribly angry.

It was very tense out there.

Cops were patrolling
the streets.

I knew if something happened,
I would be in the firing line.

I never separated myself
from them

in terms of being a reporter.

I felt, frankly, like a Muslim.

Malcolm and I
really felt like brothers.

He was not the fiery monster

that he was on
the street corner.

He was a gentle, sweet guy.

Coming between
Los Angeles and New York,

we took a night plane.

And he leaned over
on my shoulder and said to me,

"Brother, you know I have a lot
of respect for you."

Things of that sort.

And I said, "Well, I have
a lot of respect for you."

He dropped his head on
my shoulder and went to sleep.

When we reached New York,
I said, "You called me 'brother'

for the first time." He said,

"Well, for the first time,
you deserved it."

When the story came out in LIFE,

the headline and the disposition
of the text to photographs

turned it into something
very inflammatory.

The text is quite critical.

It presents this, you know,
what was the popular view

of the Nation of Islam
at the time.

As an outsider group,
as a somewhat violent group.

What's fascinating is
that Gordon Parks

actually contributes
his own separate text

saying, "These are
systemic problems

across the United States.

These are problems
that are relevant
to everyone's life.

These are problems
that you should see from
this point of view."

And that's where he
becomes an activist.

- B-mark.
- Backward action!

Are you down for
the liberation of Black people?

Do we always
have to talk politics?

What's more important?

Cut! Check the gate.

I love Gordon.

We just have
great respect for each other.


He's one of the guys,
without them,

I would not be
the filmmaker I am.

Harlem has come to bid farewell

to one of its brightest hopes.

At the end of Malcolm X,
we had my brother, Ossie Davis,

re-record the eulogy

which he gave
at Malcolm's Muslim funeral.

And there's a montage.

Many of the pictures were taken
by my brother, Gordon Parks.

We were very happy that

Gordon gave us the permission
to use those

historic photographs
of Malcolm X.

That camera in his hands
was a weapon.

That was a
motherfuckin' bazooka!

That wasn't no
six shooter or rifle.

When Mr. Gordon Parks
had that camera in his hand,

that was a bazooka.

But you're not gonna get
the great photographs

if you don't establish trust.

Gordon come in, light up a room,

gave everybody respect.
No matter if you were

Gloria Vanderbilt
or some bum on the street.

It's only when people feel safe
that they open themselves up.

And then, the camera
will capture the essence.

At least with
the films I'm doing,

especially more
for documentaries I think,

you gotta ask people
personal questions

about very painful moments
in their life.

For example, 4 Little Girls
was about the bombing

of the 16th Street
Birmingham Baptist Church.

And when you're talking
to someone

whose kid was...

dynamite blew their body apart.

That's not easy.

When did you find out that
Carole had been in the blast?

When- when my husband
and my mother-in-law came back-

came in to tell me.

Oh, boy.

It was just... It was awful.

It's the job of the artist

to have
your subject comfortable.

And Gordon had that gift.

Freedom, freedom.

Gordon's photography
forms a foundation

for a visual narrative
of Black Americans

seen through Black eyes.

If you look at it and date it,

you see the evolution of
the Civil Rights Movement.

I have the pleasure
to present to you

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

If you look
at his photographs, it's
a great chronological record

of what the 20th century
was about for Black Americans.

Gordon made us visible to people
in a way that

no other photographer
could have done it.

He came from the community,
and that was always obvious.

The hold of White supremacy

on the Black psyche
was profound.

And it was when we started

to see the images
that lifted us up,

that made us feel
that we were worthy,

that we began
to really demand justice.

And so Gordon Parks
was a warrior for justice.

Cassius Clay is your name
no more, is that right?

Yes, sir, it's Muhammad Ali.

Muhammad means worthy
of all praises,

and Ali means most high in
the Asian-African language.

How long have you had the name?

Well, for about um-
two weeks now.

Is there anybody special
who gave you the name?

Yes, sir, my leader
and teacher, the most honorable
Elijah Muhammad.

Muhammad Ali began
as a reluctant assignment.

I mean, Parks wasn't quite sure
who Muhammad Ali was,

his conversion to Islam.

The fact that he
sort of transformed from

Cassius Clay into a much more
radical political figure.

I just don't understand yet
how I can be reclassified as 1-A

without testing me in no way,

just calling me like this,
and I just don't understand it.

In other words,
you think they called you

only because you're
the heavyweight champion of...

And a Muslim too!

Ever since I've joined
the Muslim religion,

I've been catching hell
from here,

they've been trying to ail me,
and trick me into this...

At the time that Muhammad Ali
was opposing the Vietnamese War,

he was very controversial.

He really surprised people
when he said that

he was taking a stand
for himself
and for all Americans

who did not support the war,

and that blew a lot
of people's minds.

"Ain't no Vietcong
ever called me nigger."


That crystalized it
for all Black Americans.

Are you gonna resume
your boxing career?

Are you talking to us, champ?

No, I will not say nothing.
It is all in here.

When I met Muhammad Ali,

he was getting in trouble a lot
with the press.

I then took it upon myself

to say, "Hey don't let
the reporters rile you,

you know, be cooler about it."

When Parks began
to speak with Ali

and follow him around,

the two of them realized they
had a tremendous amount
in common.

In Gordon Parks's understanding

of Muhammad Ali,
was the continuation

of being in the presence
of a genius

whose art was just his hands
and his attitude,

as compared to Langston Hughes,

or Richard Wright,

or Ralph Ellison.

That was
the Malcolm X story too.

Parks could see,
in these people,

a version of himself.

And was also trying to say,
"If you can see me,

then you should also be able
to see them as well."

I wish I was there to see,
like, how he really shot.

Even the action moments,

you could tell he slowed
the shutter down a little bit

to get that blur.

You could tell his hands
were so steady,

where he could just
focus on Ali's face,
and you can see that emotion,

but you can see
the speed of Ali.

Those things that I emulate
in my own photography

is about knowing when
to speed up that shutter speed

to get that locked-in focus.

When I was starting, I just
was always worrying about,

is the image clear?
Is the ISO perfect?

Is everything just perfect?

But sometimes, some of
the most imperfect pictures

is how you relay that emotion,

and that's what I think
he was so good at too.

This image is just, like, one
of my favorite pictures of Ali.

The look in his eyes,
you see, like that glare.

He's not even looking at Gordon.
He's, like, gazing off.

And it's just, like,
a beautiful portrait.

He really captured Ali
at every moment.

You saw the goofiness of him.

You saw the seriousness.

Many of us know Muhammad Ali as
this loudmouthed boxer,

but Gordon brought out
the humanitarian side of him.

This to me talks about
the peace and serenity

that you get
from your spiritual discipline.

Muhammad Ali got a lot
from that.

Even though an image
is quick, it's quick,

but the time you put
in with that person,

you can tell in the image.

You can tell if a person
just came in and just snapped
and then kept moving.

But you... if you can see
it in their eyes,

it was a real human connection
right there.

Muhammad Ali and Gordon,

that relationship
that was able to build,

you can tell that
it was genuine,

and it was real,
and it was authentic.


There you go.

You working all that.
Give it the same.

Right now, I've been
focusing on sports a lot.

With everything
that's going on in my city,

a lot of kids are dying
because they're in the streets.


So what I want to do
is to change that narrative

around the youth
and give them something
to inspire them.

Change up. Where's Rico at?

All y'all still gotta train.

We have
this amazing boxing coach

by the name of Calvin.

See how fast that was?

I wanted to use
my photography to highlight him.


Good, no backing up.

Side to side. Good.

If Kenny tell him
to work the jab,
you work your jab.

There you go!

Whoever says work the jab,
you beat him to the punch.

Capturing someone
getting punched in the face
is pretty easy...

...but it's those

intimate moments,
those down moments,

that I really, I love, like,
just seeing people be human.

When a coach is giving
a pep talk or he hugs a kid.

I like seeing people
be vulnerable.

I've been documenting
Coach Calvin for a while now.

He's saving lives
in West Baltimore.

So what I've been doing is like,

taking a page
out of Gordon Parks's book.

I've been embedding myself
at the gym with these kids,

and kids love images
of themselves.

And that's when I really started
realizing how important

my imagery was to my city.

When your hands up,
the hands up, go to the body!

He ain't listening.
Oh, he listening. Okay!

Oh, good right hand!

Stop wrestling. Punch. Box!

"Gordon Parks's
personal history includes

a Kansas Farm,
a Minneapolis brothel,

a flophouse in Chicago,
a St. Paul jail.

The story of one American
who overcame loneliness,

the Depression, poverty,

and his color to find security

and the beginnings
of a success."

His book is titled
A Choice of Weapons.

Here is Gordon Parks.

By this point,
he's a larger-than-life figure.

You know, he's an
incredibly well known,

well respected, powerful figure.

Your pictures of
the story of the little boy...


Flavio, they pronounce it.

...in Rio de Janeiro
will long be remembered.

Gordon was asked
to make an effective photo essay

that would
help Americans understand

the scale of
the problem of poverty
in Latin America.

And here's Flavio?

Yes, that's Flav.

Oh, you got so,
you called him "Flav."

Yes, I called him Flav.
He called me Gordo.

I remember as a kid looking at
pictures of Flavio in Brazil,

and it absolutely sparked
an interest in going places

and telling stories, and seeing
things with your own eye

and through your own lens.

I wouldn't be a reporter today
if it wasn't for Gordon Parks.

Those photographs would not just

inspire a response,

they saved Flavio's life.

Gordon actually took Flavio

to a doctor for the first time,
and that doctor said

that he had
very little time left to live,

no more than two years and
probably much less than that.

Have you heard
from him since?

Well, yes,
I brought him to America, uh.

People, many of you possibly
out there,

sent in money,
over 100,000 dollars,

and demanded
that I go back and get Flavio

and bring him
to the United States
to be cured, which I did.

I brought him
to the Denver Clinic.

All of these donations
started coming in,

and he took it upon himself
to get this child help

for his asthma.

They built a new house for them,
and, you know, it's just...

Who does that?

Will you welcome please,
Mr. Gordon Parks.

I think there's
an interesting trade off

that Gordon makes
as he becomes more prominent.

What, looking back,
was the very first

photographic story
you ever covered?

Well, the very first
photographic story
I covered for LIFE

was, I think the 1948,
was the Harlem gang story.

He had previously been able
to observe uninterrupted,

you know, with his camera

and, you know,
capture the unguarded moment.

To be this Negro man
with a camera,

you know, who's going around
taking images.

You can't quite do that,
you know, when everyone
knows you,

where you're showing up
on television.

We're talking
to Gordon Parks about
The Learning Tree,

his brilliant new novel. Poetic.

He has a song about it.

Gordon, I couldn't put it down
from the very first page,

and of course, the obvious
question comes first,

is it autobiographical?

Well, that's often asked, uh,

I have a...
I must say that it's fictional.

LIFE magazine calls it
"Fictional Autobiographical."

It's a tricky one.
But I will admit

that I know most of
the characters in it.

At this point,
Gordon's personal bearing

begins to become much more
distinct and distinguished.

If celebrity was a language,
Gordon spoke it fluently.

Have you got anything else
in preparation?

Yes, I have
an autobiographical book

coming up for Harper's,
and a novel,

and there's great talk now

of a movie
for The Learning Tree,

and I will be asked
to direct that.

I hope certainly,
because you know it
so much better,

and I hope also
that they're going
to let you shoot it

just about in the same location.

We hope to go right back
to Kansas and shoot this there.

I think he gravitated to film

because he understood
the immense audience.

Gordon was so interested

in reaching
as many people as possible.

The Learning Tree
was the first major studio film

directed by
an African American director.

So he broke tremendous ground
with the film.

All of these things are clues.

Each one should know exactly
what they're coming to do,

and what they're gonna do.

He demanded
that Black crew members

be around him.

He really lifted as he climbed.

With The Learning Tree,
they took

a thoroughly integrated
crew and cast.

They could work together.
They could live together.

They created a feeling
of goodwill, you might say.

All right,
let's shoot it now.


He was not only able
to direct the film,

but to, you know,
play direct parts in a lot of

the other art practice
and disciplines

that went into
making the film.

I wrote the screenplay,
I directed it,

I wrote the music,

and I produced it
for Warner Brothers.

Parks is kind
of like the guy in the band

who's gonna play
all the instruments.

That would still be
a pretty uncommon thing

to see one person do
all those things.

But I also think it falls into
the same sort of paradox

of his career,

which is that in order to be
the first Black person
to do something,

you have to be
this exceptional talent.

The 15th
and youngest child
of a Kansas farmer,

he told of how
it was growing up

in his bestselling novel,
The Learning Tree.

And now Gordon Parks
has returned to the town

where he lived it.
And there, made that story

into a motion picture.

♪ My baby's gone ♪

It is an essential film,

certainly in understanding
the Black cinematic canon,

but it should be a part
of the conversation

as we talk about
the American cinematic canon.

And to make something
as lyrical and intimate

as The Learning Tree,

and then create
a cultural phenomenon

like Shaft is remarkable!

- Now the sequence we saw
this morning...
- Right.

Times Square,
panned on off the skyscrapers

along 42nd Street
where the marquis is,

and when Shaft pops up out
of that subway,

-that's when
it should really come on.

And there should be
a driving savage beat,

you know,
so that we'll be right
with him all the time.

-What I heard you
working on earlier

seems great
for that Shaft walk.

- Can we hear it now?
- Yeah, okay.

Now watch the rhythm, man.
Just let it flow, you know?

One, two, three, four.

How many detectives
have we seen?

From The Maltese Falcon,
you know, all the way up.

We have never seen it like this.

- Up yours!
- Get out of the way.

Richard Roundtree was like
this swaggering figure.

As they called him back then,
the "Black James Bond."

I thought we were gonna get to.

We did, but you wanted me
to fidget.

I just said, "Up yours, baby."

The whole point of Shaft
is he wasn't part of the system,

that he had agency
outside of that.

Don't get wise with me, Shaft.
I'll put your goddamn ass in.

I'll sue your goddamn ass
for false arrest.

When Shaft interacts with
the police, he talks to them

the way that all Black people
wanted to talk to the police.

-Cool it, man.
-You cool it, boy.

He talked the way
he wanted to talk
to whoever he wanted to,

and that included
the Black radicals,

that included
the Harlem gangsters.

And the idea of Black power

became very, very popular
with younger people.

You were seeing that
in the streets.

You were seeing that
in the pop culture.

And it comes through his work
as a photographer.

When you think about
what was going on in the country
at that time,

you know, really the country was
at war in many ways with itself.

Shaft was the movie
that kind of mainstreamed

a lot of that rebellion

through this sort
of detective character.

Listen, Snow White,

me and you gonna tangle
sooner or later.

We ain't gonna do shit.

John Shaft represented
Black manhood.

We're kicking ass,
and we got the ladies too.

We got it covered on all sides!

I didn't see Shaft
until much later.

My mother didn't
want me watching that.

She thought it was
a little too risqué
for her baby.

He had White
and Black women.

Shaft is in a shower
having sex with a White chick

he met at a bar.

That was, whoa.

I saw it on 42nd Street.

No noise.

That motherfuckin' theater
was jam packed.

And Black folks
were going berserk.

It's like, we ain't never
seen no shit like this before.

Open it!

We loved it!
Because on the screen

we're looking at
a Black superhero.

Shaft is a guy, he has
an office in Times Square.

He has a place in the Village,

but he's able to move in Harlem
and other spaces as well.

Hey, man. What's goin' on?

He has a relationship
with the police
and the authorities,

but he also has a relationship
with the radical element.

That's Gordon!

And be sure, after you hit him
over the head with the bottle,

and you see
the blood gush out of his face,

that you maintain the cool
that Shaft should maintain.

Gordon introduced me
to Morty Sills, his tailor.

He says, um, "He will put it
all together for you."

He never told me this,
and it was only years after

that I looked back on it
in retrospect,

it was Gordon Parks.

Gentlemen, do your scene
as you did it in the master.

No mistakes,
because this is the type

we don't like to retake.

The swaggering guy

with that black leather jacket,
which became an icon.

This was Gordon's
other personality.

That was beautiful, sweetheart.

The movie was a critical success

and a box office success.

It won an Oscar
for Isaac Hayes's

song for the opening credits.

It literally set into motion
the idea that

if you make Black films,
people will come and see them.

Shaft is back!

Drop the guns and freeze!

He's super hood,
super high, super dude,

super fly.

The arrival
of Blaxploitation

really shored up
Hollywood's fortunes.

Those films were
inexpensive to make

and guaranteed
really significant box offices.

-Don't crowd me, boy.
-You better put that down
before I make you eat it.

But after being
kind of a source

of a great deal of revenue,
there wasn't anything
beyond that.

Very few times would
the story deviate

from the same old,
same old thing.

And eventually,
the Black audience got tired

and the genre died out because

they went to the well
way too often.

That whole wave of Black film,
that Gordon helped create,

crested, and Hollywood moved on.

When Blaxploitation began
to fade out,

there was no avenue to say,
"Okay, we want Gordon Parks

to direct
this World War II epic."

Or like any of the kind
of natural progressions

that you would've seen,
especially kind of the heyday

of the 1970s American director.

You don't see him
get entrée into that.

I've never been offered
some of the films

that would have been offered
to me had I been White.

Let's put it
very simply like that.

He really wanted
to keep on being a director,

but nobody asked him anymore.
That grieved him a lot.

He had not achieved what
he wanted to in the movie world.

No matter who you are,
as an artist,

and you're not able
to expand and grow,

it's gonna hurt your soul.

Because your soul is what...

is what your art is.

He was not a comfortable fit.

While he had been able
to walk a tightrope

at LIFE magazine,

he couldn't quite
walk the tightrope in Hollywood.

So it was
a brief meteoric career,

and then it was all over.

Of course, Hollywood
has changed from the late '60s,

when he started making films,

but it's changed
because he changed it, you know.

It's changed because, you know,
he opened the door.

All the years
that I knew Gordon,

over 20 years
that I worked with him...

the next project
is what was important.

How was this going
to affect the future?

And that's where
he wanted to go.

He was always moving forward.

I want to compose more.
I want to compose differently.

I want to write more.
I want to write differently.

This all takes time,
and I know I don't have

that much time.

He would stay up
until, you know,

six o'clock
in the morning, typing.

I remember when
I would stay with him,

just hearing
the typewriter going,

like, he just
never stopped working.

Being creative
was just something

he couldn't help doing.

He just had
this drive to work all the time.

Expression of his talent
was his religion.

At 85, I really feel
that I'm just ready to start.

I met him at the Leica Gallery
in the '90s.

I had just had
a really difficult day at jail

where a young man
tried to kill himself.

You know,
like maybe two hours earlier,

and now I'm at an opening.

I was downstairs about to leave,
and Gordon had come down.

And I asked him, you know,
with all due respect, sir,

may I take a photograph of you?

And he had
a really bad toothache,
and he couldn't speak.

He looked me in my eyes,
and he raised his right hand,

and he shook his fist
about three times
as he looked at me.

He must have saw
the pain inside me
at that point.

Through his body language,
he let me know that

you are in a sense,

carry on that torch, like,
hang in there.

I had friends who knew him,
so I was able to be around him.

He wasn't just a guy
who photojournalists knew

or other people
in the photo art world knew.

Gordon was able to leap out
of the world of photography

into the world
of popular culture.

In the summer of 1998,

XXL magazine, which was then
a fledgling hip-hop magazine,

decided to do
a photograph reenacting

the Great Day in Harlem photo
that he had taken in '58.

But the big deal was,
who was going to shoot it?

And they were desperately trying
to get Gordon,

and he finally agreed to do it.

And him doing that photo made
the photo really important.

Legendary, legendary.

the generations

between the hip-hop world
and the jazz world.

I watched footage on
the Great Day in Harlem

and what that meant
to them, man.

And how Thelonious Monk
came down.

And then, I mean, yo,
it means something to me.

I came out to do my part,

to represent my culture,
you know what I mean.

A wide range of artists
all say part of the reason

for being there
was Gordon Parks.

When they called, I said,
"Yo, who's doing it man?"
I had to be here man.

Hip-hop was not
the number one pop culture
in '98.

So for Gordon to be there,
for them was a validation.

There's times
when he walks up...

...to try and move people around
during the photoshoot,

and people are applauding
because he's there.

I think
he was really touched by that.

And when he got ready
to get in the car,

he was like...

I mean,
I was right behind him and I'm,

"Get in the car, man.
Quit fuckin' around."

go to your papa's shoulder.

Stand by him.

- Me?
- You're taking
a portrait with me.

Lights, camera, action!

So, here, let me show you.

So wrap your arm around,
and don't be stiff.

Come on. This is the shot.
This is an important shot.

- Yeah.
- Because I don't have
this one, okay?

What Gordon Parks's
legacy in life has showed me

is that I am
visually representing people

like how a lawyer
represents the plaintiff

and their client, right.
And that is a real fight.

Do you always wear your glasses?

I see better without them.

Oh, yeah.
Look at those eyes.
All right, Mr. Smiley.

These aren't projects.

There is real blood depending on
that work circulating,

and being out in the world.

I get to tell this narrative
nobody wanted to tell.

So Zion, you're going
to be focused and concentrating

on me and the lens.

And I want you to be like,
you know, proud.

Bring your chin down
just a little bit.

I think it's important
to create this visual narrative

that pays homage
to Gordon's legacy

of understanding how to take

the trauma
behind institutional racism,

or constantly being
under siege in America

because you're Black,

and convey that to a viewer
with an evocative feeling.

Looking at Gordon Parks's
photographs today,

what's incredible about them
is that they're timeless.

They're as relevant today
as they were, you know,

thirty, 40, 50 years ago.

He's created
this catalogue of images

that today now tell
an important story

that we're still
trying to understand,

and if we're willing
to look at that story,
we'll gain an appreciation

of some truths that we've been
slow to recognize.

Gordon resonates
because life

has continually reminded us
of things that he tried
to tell us.

We have seen in Minneapolis,

you know, a city that Gordon
had personal connection to,

there's a high school
named for him there,

the most brutal depictions
of racism.

And you know, we've seen

just how crucial
images are to us

understanding our own humanity.

I don't think
that we really get to understand

the world that we operate in

in the same way
that we understand it now
without Gordon.

His influence
is now legendary.

And I think it's
because he represented something

that was both
dynamic in its own time

and years ahead of its time.

When you look at him

and the many disciplines
and tools he was using.

he was writing books,

he was making movies.
I mean, he was doing it all.

That kind of gave me
permission to think,

you can do more.

As a photographer
and as photographers,

I think that we
have a responsibility

to kind of, like, lend our voice

and use our cameras as weapons

to counterbalance a lot
that's going on out there.

You know, so like Gordon,

what I'm just trying to do now
is offer a counter narrative

to a lot of the negative images

that we are
so accustomed to seeing.

Of course, the photographs
can make a difference.

What Parks reminds us is

that the price of liberty
is eternal vigilance.

That vigilance only comes
from a visual way

of understanding what
we're experiencing

and what needs
to be confronted.

And I think
contemporary photographers

are really standing
on his shoulders
when they do that.

When you think about
Gordon Parks and his legacy,

yes, we love the work,
this is our passion,

but it's also about
the people you touch

and how we change their lives
using this art form

to bring people together.

When I'm
shooting images of people,

I will see a Gordon Parks image,
and I'll know

that I'm making that portrait

that's in conversation
with all of that legacy.

Whenever I get lost,
or stumble, or trip,

I'll never tire
of always looking to Gordon.