Friday, March 11, 2011
Reflections on Gordon Parks and The Learning Tree. My Interview with Kyle Johnson
Recently my good friend Carol Borden over at the Cultural Gutter asked if I would be willing to write an article for her. We talked about topics and agreed that I should take a look at Gordon Parks because it ties in with my Soldier of Cinema ideas. The course of my research had me discover that Gordon's first film, The Learning Tree (1969) - which also happens to be the first Hollywood film directed, written and composed by an African American. In the course of my research Warner Brother's archive only recently re-released the film. You can buy from here. The people I spoke with that had met, knew and worked with Mr. Parks I was very fortunate to be able to meet and have a conversation with The Learning Tree's lead actor Kyle Johnson. I found Kyle to be very generous in his time, knowledge and opinions. I have noted that I believe that it is a real testament to Mr. Gordon Parks that everyone I have been able to meet has been extremely kind and generous. Here is my full interview with Mr. Johnson. A Very Special thanks to Nicholas Eliopoulos, for without whom this interview would never have taken place.
Upon revisiting the film The Learning Tree I was curious how old you were during the filming of the movie?
I was seventeen.
What was the audition process like? Was it a normal process?
(laughs) No it was not normal. As you know I began acting at the age of eight, so I had learned from a very young age not to dwell on auditions. I would do it then just put it out of my mind. Nothing good ever comes from dwelling on an audition. I first became aware of The Learning Tree when my mother (Nichelle Nichols) gave me a copy of the book. I read it and thought it was quite amazing. My mother than causally mentioned that one day they might make a movie from the book.
Several years later, I got a call from my agent that Gordon parks wanted to meet me. The meeting was the Beverley Hills hotel. I met him, he was stoic, a man of few words. We spoke for about a half an hour. Gordon thanked me and then I left and didn't think much of it.
I got another call from my agent that they wanted to screen test me. I'm like gee whiz this will be my first screen test. Again I had never done one before, but I knew how these things happen. So I go and do the screen test, and the first one was with Estelle Evans, who plays my mother. We do the test and again, (talking like Gordon) "thanks Kyle that was very nice" right, so I go home and put it out of my mind. A week later I get another call, they want me to do another screen test. Oh wow! Okay, this must be good news. This one is with Mira Waters who plays my girlfriend Arcella and we do the test and same thing from Gordon, "Kyle, thanks very much for coming, good job." so I go home and say I'm not even going to think about this thing. Then I get another call and this one is with Joel Fluellen who plays my uncle Rob. The same thing again, so now I get a forth call for the forth screen test and I'm like, "Jesus can this guy not make up his mind?" I go and do the test, same thing, (speaking as Gordon, "Thanks very much." and I put it out of my mind. Well fortunately there were not any more screen tests.
More time goes by, maybe a month or so and I get another call from my agent and he says, "Okay, well they've made the arrangements and your leaving on September 12th" or whatever it was and I said, "Where am I going? What am I doing?" and he says, "Your going to Kansas for The Learning Tree." and I said, "It's not another screen test is it?" Gordon being a man of very few words - in that regard - apparently everyone knew I had the part except me.
So you were the last to know.
Yeah, I was the last to know and the other thing, I didn't know was the screen tests were not for me. They were for the other actors.
That's pretty awesome when you learn that in retrospect.
Yeah, so I was kind of flabbergasted. It was really funny to me that he (Gordon) had basically made up his mind that day in the hotel room. I had been cast from that point but he never explicitly stated it, nor did anyone else. So, that's how I got the part.
When you got to Fort Scott, Kansas what was the reception like there?
It was great, the circus had come to town. In a sense literally, in that there was a circus scene, which a lot of local towns people were characters in the carnival. The reception was good. I certainly did not have unpleasant experiences with anyone in Fort Scott. Sometimes it was a little rocky with the suits from Warner Brothers, it was never with me personally.
It was in regards to the production?
It was issues with Gordon and the position he was in. They (Warner Brothers) are sending out people and that's their job is to ensure that thinks stay on track. Things were not necessary that simpatico all the time.
Also at this time, Gordon is a first time film director.
Yes but it was the circumstances of he (Gordon) being the first black director in Hollywood. There were issues with Fort Scott that had nothing to do with the film. The issues with Fort Scott go back to Gordon's childhood and that's what is portrayed in the film, obviously that was the place he grew up, that was the actual place where the events occurred and the people there were descendants, some of the people were his (Gordon's) age - his contemporaries. Although their associations were rather limited, and over the years there were some...let's just say....some friction. Gordon left when he was very young but did not really return - or was ever noticed to have returned - I mean he came back to visit his family but his name did not mean anything until he became successful in his profession. In particular in the fifties when he had really made his mark as a photojournalist and in doing the coverage of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and the families in Harlem, this big stories for Life magazine.
In an era where the idea of black pride, militancy became concerns across the country and so basically Fort Scott was scarred of Gordon Parks and they were apprehensive about how the town was going to be portrayed in the movie. The book was there for them to read and that was probably uncomfortable enough to read - that they knew which to be true - but then you add on a layer of black militancy, an association with the black panthers and all of the rest of the tumultuous sixties, they (Fort Scott) were pretty wound up. There were also personal issues - aside from his career and standing in the world - one of the issues, it boiled down to was the maintenance of the cemetery where his parents were buried and of course most of the black community, which were maybe just a couple of notches above the garbage dump. Kansas is also a border state and there is all of that historical stuff, the re-enactments (the civil war). People are fascinated with the era to one degree or another identify with it and we know where Kansas is today.
There was on-going friction as he would come back to visit his family or have any encounters with them (Fort Scott) so now coming up to doing the film, the film has a green light, it is pretty much set that it is going to happen and he (Gordon) wanted to do it in Fort Scott. Well there was actually a fair amount of resistance from the city fathers, the old guard, the old boy network, however you might want to describe it. They did not want the film to be there, they did not want Gordon there, they just wanted him to go away and not darken their door anymore.
At some point along the line a contention of younger folk and some folks in the business community kind of went, now wait a minute, let me get this straight, your saying that this very famous person, who was born here and is famous all over the world, wants to come back and make a movie and bring two to three million dollars to inject into this local economy and you don't think this is a good idea? Well, once that kind of way of looking at it entered into the debate the old guard had to retreat and so here we come. By the time we got there, essentially the pragmatists, the realist, the adults had prevailed. We were all treated very well and had lots of co-operation and on the sidelines were a few grumbles.
I was quite curious, it was the late sixties and where Kansas is situated, the tone of the film, I was thinking there had to be some kind of friction.
Yeah, we shot this is the fall of sixty-eight, we're looking at both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy (assassinated) in the same year, along with the Black Panthers, the Vietnam war and hippies and everything else. Everyone were on pins and needles but one of the things about us coming there and actually it is one of the things that I hold dearest to my heart, is that once we came they could not go back and that has had a major impact especially on black people that live in the town, who had been suppressed, held back, kept in their place. This is 1968 but it had a little bit of a time capsule aspect to it, so their like ten to twenty years behind in terms of general attitudes, so black people are deferential, they say, "oh yes sir, oh yes this, oh no you first." and all of these self-deprecating behaviors and that was the code, that was how things are done here, but they were not done like that anymore after we shot The Learning Tree because a new perspective was introduced - there was no way to get the toothpaste back into the tube.
I have always thought that cinema can change the world.
Yeah it can, not only change the world but it change a small town which is sometimes a bigger challenge.
Mr Parks was a first time film director. What was he like as a director?
I have to say it was my most enjoyable work as an actor. I always felt - when your working as an actor in Hollywood there is a certain level of professionalism that's expected and it doesn't often drop below that in studio and network productions, of course there are some independent type things where there might be some dips. I was accustomed to a certain standard, I really enjoyed The Learning Tree, for me it was like being a part of a part of a tight run ship, a well oiled machine, you do your part and you recognize it's importance and relationship to all the other parts, cast, crew, director and so forth.
Working with Gordon was a little different, it was really the first time, not really the first time but certainly the most enjoyable and the importance of the film historically and socially added to the that. I think that as a director, a lot of his direction was at the casting and hiring levels, in a way. I think that everyone that came on the project came with a certain capability. From Burnett Guffy who was the cinematographer. (Who would win the Academy Award the year previous for Best Cinematography for Bonnie and Clyde) to the assistant directors and also Gordon made an extraordinary effort to get as many black technicians on the film as he could and he was very successful at it. There is a thing with the unions, and in particular at the time where you had to work a certain amount of days in order to qualify for the union and it was a catch-22. How do you qualify if you can't get a union type of job? He hired a lot of technicians, drivers, caters, make up people, etc that were actually able to get their union cards having worked on the film because the production schedule was three months and it met every one's requirements, but aside from that, if they were black, white, long established, or capable. or newly inspired, none the less there was a sense that everyone was there and knew their job and were for sure going to do it. I think everybody was very motivated, in the same that it was a special thing for me, I think, I don't think i know because many people said that and others nodded their heads in agreement that this was a very special film and while they (film cast and crew) had a board range of experience this one stood out.
Working with Gordon was, he basically went with his instincts, which were very good. He would pretty much create the environment and let you do what you did. Often his direction was not detailed or conceptualized in the sense of, "Okay, we're going for this kind of thing.". Basically it was there in the script, it was written from the book, it's not like we were going to do it different from the book, other than compressing time, fewer characters and that kind of thing.
Gordon just seemed to trust the instincts of the actors, and that was for myself, Estelle Evans or Alex Clarke - who played my adversary. He just sensed that he had the right person and all he needed to do was create the environment and let them do what he could see them doing and past that he would say, "In this part I want to bring out this aspect." He certainly didn't coach lines or say do it like this. He would simply say. "I want to show this more." That's pretty much how we worked, we also worked very quickly. As I said the crew was very focused and a lot of stuff was done in or two takes, sometimes three or four, rarely seven or eight. I think everybody was just kind of tuned in and supportive of each other in a way that just allowed stuff to come out.
Sounds like that from an actor's perspective it was a great environment and experience.
Yes, very much. I always enjoyed working in television, I never really had any criticism of television, sometimes there is. I think that the era was different in the sixties there were no illusions about what it was supposed to be, it was just this is it, this is what we do. That's how you approach it and do the best job that you could. This was definitely more pleasurable in being able to take the time when necessary, to dig a little deeper and not having to say so much, "Okay shoot, let's go, let's go!"
When I watched the film again, it is based on Mr. Parks childhood and some of his experiences were pretty intense. What was that like to recreate as a young actor?
It wasn't difficult. I think it was clear what needed to be done and again Gordon would set the environment. It was real clear what you needed to do. As far as the type of experiences he had, it's both universal. I think in different cultures there are similar challenges, but even as a young person when your black in America you figure that out pretty quick. You have lived with that for a long time. Even though I hadn't suffered any particular grievous experiences, being beat up or insulted. However I did grow up in L.A. during the Watts riots, it proceeded the filming by a few years and when Magnificent Montague said, "Burn, baby burn!" - that's where it originated - we knew exactly what he was talking about and agreed. It was a time to confront the static, pervasive, on-going injustices that had occurred all this time. James Brown "I'm black and proud." came out in sixty-eight, it was right around that time, so there was a lot of uprising and you look today in the middle east, it's the same thing.
I think you can only suppress a people for so long before everybody says enough is enough. I hope so anyways.
That's true. Actually, when I was in Fort Scott, my grandmother accompanied me. I was underage and I needed an adult guardian. so my grandmother came with me which was wonderful she had such a wonderful time. She was a bit of a star herself. My grandfather who had passed away a few years prior to that, he and I used to sit down and watch the t.v. news from the time I was ten, basically when Kennedy took office, before that I thought Eisenhower was the president's first name. When Kennedy came along it was like, this is a change, I'm not quite sure what it means but I like it and we used to talk about the news, talk about world affairs as we watched Cronkite. We went through, "ban the bomb" era, the cold war stuff and even up to, if you hear a siren, duck.
My grandfather was the mayor of a small town outside of Chicago, Robin, Illinois. His father was one of the founders of the town. My grandfather was mayor of the town in the thirties. So he had the awareness of politics and world affairs and he used to say, "You know, one of these days all the little countries of the world are going to get together and gang up and kick the United Sates' butt." for all the accumulated indignities. I had an awareness of social conditions, even though I didn't directly experience, every black person experiences Emmett Till.
Would you say things are getting better?
Yeah, I think you can say objectively, without any serious challenge that things are better, yes. It is certainly better, it is certainly better then before Martin Luther King, before the civil rights era, before some of those things swept away and even though we see it continue in some people's behaviors, ultimately what it boils down to is something I recognized a long time ago, racism is a tactic not a strategy. The strategy always involves money. It always boils down to that. Money and power. Racism, racial division or exploiting those kinds of issues always, always, a means to an end. it's not really an end to itself, although it has a corrupting and corrosive influence because people start believing their own bullshit.
Because at the end of the day the people in power only care about the color green.
Right, Exactly. But of course they exploit people who have their attentions else where, so as far as the range of experiences in Gordon's life that were, the many events that were traumatic, you know it's not that far removed. even if you don't experience the exact same thing because their is a symbiotic relationship in a community.When someone you know is stopped by a cop, your reaction is the same if it was you or a member of your family, or it could have just as easily have been. You could have been on the same street corner an hour before. There is an identity factor which I think is more pervasive than direct experience. Even though he had gone through these many terrible incidents that were foreign to me.
What are some of the things you have learned being in the prescience of Gordon Parks?
I think I'm still learning. I think there is a lot about him that I absorbed but didn't quite recognized at the time. There are certain things that I gone back to and revisited and go, "Yeah, I seem to remember when this thought first entered my mind." It certainly wasn't prophesying or him saying, "Kyle, you should do this with your life." I think it was a life by example and he was a very admirable person. Obviously very wise, very successful, very talented, very creative, tremendous empathy. Your lucky if some of that stuff rubs off. I think my upraising to that point made me receptive to it.
What were some of your favorite memories of making The Learning Tree?
I was thinking about that, I don't know, just the whole process, the relationships with the different people in the cast and crew. Jack Aldworth was the assistant director. I don't myself quite know what it was but I always glad that he (Jack) was there and when ever I saw him or talked to him, I always felt uplifted. Somehow, that everything is okay. But that is just one example, everyone on the cast and crew there is a hundred or so people and you don't have the ultimate bond with every individual but you could feel a commonality, a sense of community. I think it exists on some degree on all such things, I mean you go on a shoot for an amount of time and certain bonding occurs and relationships and you get to know people but as I said earlier a lot of people said this one is specially, special. I think the privilege and joy of being a part of something that is so good and that you share with so many people and the townspeople, both black and white and seeing how the town changed once the circumstances were such that it could. I think it's kind of the whole package that was really a great gift. I really enjoyed it and not just in the sense that it was very fulfilling in a way that you might not experience in other things.