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Film / The Learning Tree

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The Learning Tree is a 1969 film directed by Gordon Parks, based on his semi-autobiographical novel of his life growing up in Kansas. Newt Winger is a black teenager growing up in Cherokee Flats, Kansas some time between 1923 and 1929 (note the Calvin Coolidge photo in the courthouse). 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, who believes he has N-Word Privileges and has a habit of shooting black men In the Back.

Contrasted with Newt is Marcus Savage, 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 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 Mr. Kirby. Unfortunately Mr. Kirby catches them in the act and whips Marcus. Marcus rips the whip out of Mr. Kirby's hand and beats him with it. This sets in motion a tragic chain of events.

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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.


Tropes:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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  • 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.
  • Hello, Nurse!: 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.
  • Match Cut: From the spots on the wings of a butterfly to Newt's 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
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