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Film / The Learning Tree

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Newt: Are we gonna live here all our lives?
Sarah: Don't you like it here, son?
Newt: I don't know. I ain't been no place else.
Sarah: Well, I hope you won't have to live here all your life. It's not all good place, not all bad place either. Sort of like fruit on a tree; some good, some bad. Understand?
Newt: (nods his head)
Sarah: No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats like that 'til the day you die. Let it be your learning tree.

The Learning Tree is a 1969 coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Gordon Parks, adapted from his own semi-autobiographical 1963 novel about his life growing up in 1920s Kansas.

Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson) is a black teenager growing up in Cherokee Flats, Kansas some time between 1923 and 1929.note  Cherokee Flats has a fairly sizeable black community, and Newt's family is doing fairly well for themselves, owning their own farm. However, Newt still has to deal with racism and prejudice in the white community, like the condescending schoolteacher who tells him not to bother with college prep courses but to study to be a railroad porter. Or the viciously racist Sheriff Kirky (Dana Elcar), who believes he has N-Word Privileges and has a habit of shooting black men In the Back.


Contrasted with Newt is Marcus Savage (Alex Clarke), who is quite a bit more angry than Newt, and with reason. Unlike Newt's supportive, relatively prosperous two-parent home, Marcus lives with his alcoholic, shiftless father Booker (Richard Ward) in a shack, his mother having departed for parts unknown. One day, Newt, Marcus, and some of the other black teenage boys in town go to steal some apples from the orchard of local farmer Jake Kiner (George Mitchell). Unfortunately, Kiner catches them in the act and begins whipping Marcus. Marcus rips the whip out of Kiner's hand and beats him with it. This sets in motion a tragic chain of events.

Although African-Americans had been making movies for decades (see Within Our Gates, 1920), Gordon Parks was the first black director to be hired by one of the major Hollywood studios. He went on to direct the blaxploitation classic Shaft. The Learning Tree was one of the first 25 films admitted to the National Film Registry with the inaugural class of 1989.



  • Alliterative Name: Chauncey Cavanaugh
  • Amusement Park: Newt and his gang are seen attending one where they participate in a boxing tournament.
  • Angry Black Man: Marcus. He's poor, his mother is gone, his father's an alcoholic, and he's a young black man in Kansas in the 1920s, so he has reason to be angry.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Mrs. Winger is one of the nicest people you could hope to meet, but she's not afraid to be stern when the time calls for it.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Newt's able to clear Silas' name in court. But Newt's mother dies at the end, and Marcus tried to shoot Newt after his (Marcus') dad commits suicide, and he ends up getting shot by Sheriff Kirky.
  • Blind Black Guy: Newt's Uncle Rob, who was blinded years ago in some kind of explosion. Sure enough, Uncle Rob is the designated wise man and sage.
  • Book Dumb: See Never Learned to Read
  • Call-Back: See In the Back below.
  • Category Traitor: Marcus calls the black preacher who comes to his cell and mouths platitudes about Jesus an Uncle Tom.
  • Chekhov's Gun: An actual gun. Marcus discovers one in the whorehouse where he's been hired to sweep up. Later, after finding out that Newt snitched on his father, who then killed himself, Marcus grabs that gun and goes after Newt.
  • Conversation Cut: Newt's family is saying grace at dinner. Zoom in on Newt's hands, then cut to Newt's hands in prayer at church, as the reverend continues the prayer seamlessly.
  • Driven to Suicide: Booker shoots himself in the courthouse with Sheriff Kirky's gun after being exposed as the murderer in court.
  • Establishing Series Moment: The film's set in Kansas and happens to begin with a giant tornado... similar to the beloved film The Wizard of Oz. This is an intentional case as it offers an oblique commentary on the film, quickly establishes the film's grim world, and lets the audience know right off the bat that the film's not going to sugarcoat its issues like most Hollywood films of the era. This film's Kansas is a world in which moonshiners abuse their children and sex is an open topic, where a white sheriff can shoot a black man in the back with without any punishment. It lets the viewers know right of the bat that the gloves are off.
  • Good Parents: Sarah Winger is a caring and thoughtful mother to Newt who looks out for her family and thinks about her kids' best interests. She even cares about Marcus knowing about how unloved he is and doesn't want anything bad to happen to him. All these qualities makes her untimely death at the end even more depressing.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Mr. Hornsby, the previous principal of Newt's school, was stated to be a racist against blacks himself and was responsible for Miss Mc Clintock's hatred of black students and their exclusion from various school activities.
  • Head-Turning Beauty: The curvaceous Mabel draws looks and inspires comments from most of the young black men in town.
  • In the Back:
    • Sheriff Kirky, who is hunting for the boys after the attack on Mr. Kiner, finds them at the swimming hole. After Newt raises the alarm, poor Tuck, who was just playing dice, runs for it and is shot in the back by Kirky.
    • And at the end, Marcus runs after knifing Newt, and is shot in the back by Kirky at the same location.
  • In the Future, Humans Will Be One Race: Blind Uncle Rob talks about the colors he can still see in his head, and muses that when all the colors of humanity have mixed, things may be better.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Marcus is seen attending Sarah Winger's funeral. This is later averted when he tries to shoot Newt after he indirectly took part in his (Marcus') father's suicide.
  • Match Cut: From the spots on the wings of a butterfly to Marcus' eyes.
  • Meaningful Background Event: Newt is lying on his stomach on the ground, idly regarding an anthill, when the dark clouds above suddenly form a funnel cloud far away. A tornado then whips through the area.
  • Never Learned to Read: Marcus's father Booker has to sign Marcus's parole papers with an X.
  • Odd Name Out: Newt's close compansions' names are Jappy, Skunk, Beansy and... Marcus.
  • Politically Correct History: To an extent. There are definitely some very racist people in Cherokee Flats. But there are also some unrealistically enlightened people, like the liberal high school principal who sides with Newt against his teacher, or the noble judge. Marcus serves a surprisingly short stint in jail, just six months, for badly beating a white man. And the school is integrated, which is surprising, considering the Real Life Brown vs. the Board of Education case was about a school in Kansas. No surprise, this was all studio mandated to make white audiences more comfortable, mandates which made Parks very angry.
  • Rape as Drama: The film was already pretty serious, but Arcella being a rape victim only ups the film tone of darkness. Newt initially getting blamed for said rape doesn't help matters.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Newt's white high school principal, who understands that black students are being judged and helps defend Newt's side.
  • Sexy Soaked Shirt: The voluptuous Mabel is guiding Newt to a stone barn during the tornado when the rain makes her dress cling to her body. She deflowers Newt after they get inside the barn.
  • Shaming the Mob: After the cries of "kill the n***r" lead to Booker grabbing a gun and shooting himself in court, the judge gives the white people in the courtroom a scornful lecture about taking the law into their own hands.
  • Shout-Out: So... a film set in Kansas that begins with a giant tornado... Where have we seen that before?
  • Skinnydipping: Newt, Marcus, and their buddies like to swim in the river.
  • Snow Means Love: Snow falls while Newt is taking pretty Arcella out on a date.
  • Soap Opera Disease: Newt's mother dies of...something.
  • Spiteful Spit: Newt beats Marcus at an impromptu boxing match at the fair, winning a cash prize. Marcus spits at Newt when Newt tries to help him up.
  • A Storm Is Coming: Not actually stated, but it's symbolic that the film opens with a tornado sweeping through town.
  • A Taste of the Lash: Mr. Kiner busts out a whip and strikes Marcus after catching Marcus and the gang stealing apples. It backfires badly when Marcus seizes the whip and beats him with it.
  • Title Drop: When Newt is talking about moving away. His mother says "Think of Cherokee Flats like that 'till the day you die. Let it be a learning tree."
  • Title Theme Tune: "The Learning Tree", written by Parks, plays over the opening credits.
  • What You Are in the Dark: Newt knows that Silas Newhall didn't kill Mr. Kiner—he was up in the hayloft, and saw Booker Savage beat Mr. Kiner to death after Kiner knocked Newhall out. In response to a guarded comment from Newt, his older brother said that it's good a black man didn't kill Kiner, citing another Kansas town where a black-on-white murder led to a lynching and the whites burning down the black neighborhood. Newt tells his story anyway.