The Baton Passes to Asia

Roger Cohen – The New York Times

Copyright The New York Times
It’s the end of the era of the white man.
I know your head is spinning. The world can feel like one of those split-screen TVs with images of a suicide bombing in Baghdad flashing, and the latest awful market news coursing along the bottom, and an ad for some stool-loosening wonder drug squeezed into a corner.
The jumble makes no sense. It just goes on, like the mindless clacking of an ice-dispenser.
On the globalized treadmill, you drop your eyes again from the screen (now showing ads for gourmet canine cuisine) to the New Yorker or Asahi Shimbun. And another bomb goes off.
There’s a lot of noise and not much signal. Everywhere there is flux and the reaction to it: the quest, sometimes violent, for national or religious identity. These alternate faces of globalization — fluidity and tribalism — define our frontier-dissolving world.
But in all the movement back and forth, basic things shift. The world exists in what Paul Saffo, a forecaster at Stanford University, calls “punctuated equilibrium.” Every now and again, an ice cap the size of Rhode Island breaks off.
The breaking sound right now is that of the end of the era of the white man.
I’d been thinking about this at Dubai airport in the middle of the night, as the latest news came in from the United States of the bloody end to the mother of all spending binges. I was watching the newly affluent from other parts of the world — Asians and Arabs principally — spend their way through the early-morning hours.
The West’s moment, I thought, is passing. Money and might are increasingly elsewhere. America’s little dose of socialism from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson might stave off the worst but cannot halt the trend.
Then I arrived in Hong Kong. The talk was all about how U.S. economic woes could impact Chinese growth. Might it tumble to 8 from over 11 percent? And what of India, powering along with growth of a mere 8 percent or so?
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The Obscured Continent: It’s hard to find Africa in Vanity Fair’s new “Africa Issue”

Gal Beckerman – Columbia Journalism Review

Copyright The COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW
Tue 26 Jun 2007
In recent years, two main schools of thought have emerged about how to lift Africa out of its seemingly bottomless descent into war, poverty, and disease. To borrow labels used by the reporter Andrew Rice in an insightful review for the Nation two years ago, two predominant arguments are being advanced: the “governance-first” camp “holds that Africans are impoverished because their rulers keep them that way,” and the “poverty-first” camp “believes African governments are so lousy precisely because their countries are so poor.”
Each argument contains its own implicit demand: one puts the onus on Africans to throw out their more-often-than-not corrupt and kleptocratic leaders and find a way to take advantage of the rich resources of the continent to make it prosper. The other looks to the Western world to fulfill a moral responsibility to provide billions of dollars in aid to Africans so that an improved standard of living will lead to stronger and more stable countries.
With the exception of angry and often cruelly written op-eds by one-time Peace Corps volunteer and travel writer Paul Theroux, not much time and space is ever given here in the West to the “governance-first” argument. Mostly, there is one, overwhelming attitude that dominates the way we write and think about Africa in the West: we are the only possible saviors, obligated by our humanity to donate money and urge our government to both increase spending on aid and cancel any debts owned by these poor countries.
This “poverty-first” attitude also fits in nicely with the role that certain celebrities – i.e., Bono — have carved out as representatives of the continent, hoping to prick the conscience of Western leaders. It makes sense. When the guilt for Africa’s many problems lands totally on the West and not on Africa itself, an opportunity opens up for those with money and star power to set themselves up as spokespeople for hundreds of millions of Africans. It’s a precarious role, one that can easily tip over into a paternalistic and condescending tone that’s not that far away from the worldview of colonial powers who saw themselves as engaged in a civilizing mission.
All this as introduction to a look at the current issue of Vanity Fair, its “Africa Issue.”
First — it must be said — good intentions should never be undervalued. When you have a glossy magazine like Vanity Fair, whose existence depends on revenue from ads for expensive products — like the diamond-encrusted Dior watch that appears on the wrist of Sharon Stone on page twenty-five of the “Africa Issue” — it is always a risk to focus on subject matter that is not quite as sexy as, say, a photo shoot that features Scarlett Johansson’s bare bum. When you set yourself the task of capturing the essence of the continent in an issue, you can’t avoid AIDS, you can’t avoid disease, and you can’t avoid child soldiers. None of these are easy sells to the designers and car companies that pay for the magazine’s big bucks production costs.
That caveat out of the way, it’s worth examining how Graydon Carter and his guest editor for the issue – yes, none other than Bono – went about bridging this divide between the style of Vanity Fair and the substance of Africa. It turns out that the “poverty-first” view of Africa’s problems suits their purposes perfectly. With the emphasis on the West’s obligation — on Bono’s role in changing things, and not on some unknown African activist or opposition politician — than the issue can have all the glamour of every other Vanity Fair and still be ostensibly about Africa.
The cover, in a way, tells the story. Together with photographer-to-the-stars, Annie Liebovitz, Carter and Bono conceived of twenty different portraits that would appear on twenty different versions of the cover. According to Liebovitz, the concept was to present a group of people having a “conversation” about Africa. “It’s a visual chain letter,” she said in a note in the issue, “spreading the message from person to person to person.” The people having this conversation include, conveniently, Brad Pitt and Madonna, Oprah and Barack Obama. It’s not clear exactly what the connection of any of these people is to the continent. And, by my count, only three of them are actually from Africa – Desmond Tutu, Djimoun Honsou, and Iman. But the key indicator of what the issue’s character will be is that this a conversation about Africa by a group of well-known celebrities. They are the ones here with agency to tell the story of Africa in Vanity Fair.
What follows inside has much of the same tone. An article about all of humanity’s genetic connection to the continent reveals what the editors think of their task: “The world population that was spawned in Africa now has the power to save it. We are all alive today because of what happened to a small group of hungry Africans around 50,000 years ago. As their good sons and daughters, those of us who left, whether long ago or more recently, surely have a moral imperative to use our gifts to support our cousins who stayed.” Condescension might be too strong a word, but it is shocking to what extent the actual people, the Africans, seem to get totally lost here. They are certainly absent from the big features.
Predictably, there is a long, glowing profile of Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia professor who is the darling of the “poverty-first” crowd, uncritically endorsing his ideas about pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into Africa and breathlessly following him as he jets from village to village dispensing advice. Even more predictably, the piece is illustrated by a photo still from his MTV special with Angelina Jolie. The effect of Bono’s own (red) campaign is detailed in another article, self-congratulatingly titled, “The Lazarus Effect.” By getting companies, like the Gap, to promote products whose sales will go toward providing anti-retroviral drugs for free, the campaign has helped many people with HIV to live longer and healthier.
All good stuff, but the article reads more like an advertisement for Bono’s good works than about the lives of those affected by the disease. William Langweische, the resident narrative master, turns in an expertly told story about a family of Indians in the Congo that have an airplane transport company. He beautifully describes flying around in planes patched together with duct tape, but here again, the people remain small specks on the ground.
The whole concept of the issue seems to be about Westerners telling other Westerners about Africa (à la the cover). Bill Clinton muses about Nelson Mandela. An interesting music festival in the deserts of northern Mali, is described through the diary entries of an MTV executive. A photo portfolio of mostly Western-educated and urban-based Africans is meant to present a new face of the continent, but they are robbed of their own voices and are instead introduced by prominent Westerners, like Dave Eggers, Harry Belafonte, and Damien Hirst. Early in the issue Desmond Tutu is interviewed by, of all people, Brad Pitt.
In fact, an African is the author of only one single article in the issue. And Binyavanga Wainaina’s rambling and seemingly unedited (in an otherwise heavily edited magazine) memories of a changing Kenya do not do justice to the thousands of African writers who could have written so much more eloquently about their homes and their own people (which, by the way, are so diverse that the idea of a monolithic presentation of Africa seems a little silly to begin with).
I’m being harsh, I know. Maybe Vanity Fair is not the forum for Africans to present themselves on their own terms. But it is frustrating to think that what might be some people’s only exposure to Africa can’t come in a form that allows for some authentic voices to emerge, telling the real story of Africans themselves who are struggling to alter their realities, or even simply describing what those realities are, in their own words. One has to wonder: what an impact it would have had had Vanity Fair decided to put an unknown– or even a relatively known – African on their cover instead?
The issue does have a few bright spots. An excellent story about the intense Chinese influence on Africa told me something I did not know. And an overview of African literary stars also exposed me to some writers I’d like to read. But even these articles were written by Westerners. Why didn’t Carter and Bono allow Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche (misspelled…should be Adichie), the Nigerian author who’s described here as the new “It girl” of African literature, to tell us about the richness of Nigeria’s literary scene, of the influence of authors such as Chinua Achebe and Wole Soyinka on her own work?
I don’t mean to seem naïve by making these suggestions. I know that Graydon Carter, for all his caring for Africa, needs to think about what sells magazines. But it seems to me that it’s not just a market concern that drove the way the issue was put together. It goes back to that particular understanding about how to salvage Africa, and the popular notion that Westerners alone can do it.
Paul Theroux, in one of those angry op-eds, had a word or two for those who believe that: “Africa is a lovely place – much lovelier, more peaceful and more resilient and, if not prosperous, innately more self-sufficient than it is usually portrayed. But because Africa seems unfinished and so different from the rest of the world, a landscape on which a person can sketch a new personality, it attracts mythomaniacs, people who wish to convince the world of their worth.”
I tend to agree with Theroux’s idea if not his tone. The Vanity Fair issue was, I’m sure, born out of good intention. But, in the end, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that what it actually achieves in the end is to convince us of those good intentions. Nothing more. And that, for Africans, both those who desire help and those trying to help themselves, is not even close to enough.
http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_obscure_continent.php?page=1

Copycat: Can China create its own Hollywood?

Tim Wu – Slate

Posted Friday, June 30, 2006 – Copyright Slate
China has one of the world’s most straightforward industrial policies: Identify successful foreign industries, determine what makes them successful, and clone them. This strategy has worked well in telecommunications, where China’s Huawei makes products so similar to Cisco’s that Cisco has sued for patent and copyright infringement. Similarly, China Unicom just launched the RedBerry, which, as you might guess, is a cheaper version of the BlackBerry. Next on the list: copying Hollywood.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, China won over the film world by developing quality art-house movies that brought home international festival prizes. But the American commercial film industry offers more than a Palme d’Or: It’s lucrative both domestically and overseas, and it serves to spread American ideals and culture. That’s why both the Chinese film industry and Chinese politicians want their own version of Hollywood, to create blockbusters of proportions. It’s a strategy that’s half-succeeding; the Chinese industry is managing to make a few films that sell in the United States. But the other side of Hollywoodódomestic box-office successóis proving elusive. As a result, the Chinese industry is increasingly making films designed to fit American tastes, like the Wal-Mart factories in China that make baseball mitts for American Little-Leaguers.
So far, China’s main strategy has been to repurpose its existing assets with filmmaker Zhang Yimou at the forefront of the movement. Zhang is known to film snobs as a director of movies like the critically acclaimed Raise the Red Lanternóproductions about the bitterness of life consisting mainly of actress Gong Li looking forlorn and tormented. But that’s the old Zhang. Over the last few years he’s metamorphosed into a big-time martial-arts director, responsible for two successes (or sellouts, depending on your point of view): the epics Hero and House of Flying Daggers, which have made the bulk of their money in the United States.
The retooling strategy, however, doesn’t always work. Take the 2005 film The Promise, which put Chen Kai Ge, director of Cannes-winning Farewell My Concubine, at the helm of a martial-arts romance. In addition to an A-list Chinese director, the movie boasted the largest budget in Chinese film history and starred Hong Kong actors Cecilia Cheng and Nicolas Tse. What could go wrong? Everything. The Promise features a hero who struggles to act through his giant golden helmet, costumes more Flash Gordon than Tang dynasty, and some of the worst CGI since Jar-Jar Binks. The Weinstein brothers planned to distribute the film in the United States but pulled out after getting a whiff of it.
China’s not alone in producing such duds; Hollywood has its share of Jersey Girls, too. But the Chinese movie industry is further hampered by the fact that it’s very difficult for a big film to make money without international distribution. While successful American films make money in the domestic market, and supplement that with ticket sales overseas, the big Chinese films need foreign distribution to break even. Ironically, government policies designed to protect the film industry brought about this state of affairs.
Last week I was in the Beijing cafe Zha Zha, and I asked the barista how often she goes to the movies. “I’ve never been to a movie theater,” she repliedóencapsulating the problem. In China, there is less than one movie theater for every 1 million people: That’s something like 2,000 people for every seat.
Why so few theaters? There would be more movie theaters if they made more money, but theaters can only make money if they have something good to show. For trade and ideological reasons, China maintains a quota of about 20 foreign films a year; it even blocks films made with Chinese actors, like Memoirs of a Geisha.
Censorship policy adds another level of unpredictability. The Da Vinci Code made its world debut in China (four hours before Cannes). The movie seemed poised to become a giant domestic hit, but on June 9, theaters were abruptly ordered to stop screening the film. No one knows exactly why.
Finally, the bootleg DVD industry doesn’t help. As most people know, bootleg DVDs are everywhere in China; my local grocery store in Beijing carries everything from Birth of a Nation to The Bicycle Thief, all for about $1 apiece. Film enthusiasts benefit, but the DVDs compete with films that are still in theaters and gut legitimate DVD salesóa key source of revenue in the United States. While Hollywood complains about losing money to bootleg DVDs, the Chinese bootlegs hurt the local industry, too. The greatest consequence may be cultural: The omnipresence of bootleg DVDs has created a generation of Chinese consumers accustomed to watching cheap DVDs on inexpensive large-screen TVs instead of buying popcorn and movie tickets.
What does this all mean for Chinese film? It means America is the best place for a Chinese film to make money, after all. We’ll likely see less funding for films that Chinese people enjoyólike those of director Feng Xiao-Gang, filled with quirky Chinese humoróand more movies designed for American tastes (kung-fu aplenty). For better or for worse, it’s less beating Hollywood than serving it. Consider it the Kung Pao Chickenization of Chinese film.

A history of Playboy magazine: THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR; Life in the centerfold.

JOAN ACOCELLA – The New Yorker

Copyright The New Yorker
Issue of 2006-03-20
Posted 2006-03-13
Hugh Hefner, the founder and editor-in-chief of Playboy, always said that his ideal for the magazineís famous Playmate of the Month, the woman in the centerfold photo, was ìthe girl next door with her clothes off.î In other words, he was trying to take his readers back to a time before their first sexual experience, a time when they still liked their stuffed bear and thought that a naked woman might be something like that. Taschen has just published ìThe Playmate Book: Six Decades of Centerfoldsî ($39.99), by Gretchen Edgren, a contributing editor to Playboy, and the book is a testament to Hefnerís fidelity to his vision. Six hundred and thirteen women are represented, but there is one basic model. On top is the face of Shirley Temple; below is the body of Jayne Mansfield. Playboy was launched in 1953, and this female image managed to draw, simultaneously, on two opposing trends that have since come to dominate American mass culture: on the one hand, our countryís idea of its Huck Finn innocence; on the other, the enthusiastic lewdness of our advertising and entertainment. We are now accustomed to seeing the two tendencies combinedówitness Britney Spearsóbut when Hefner was a young man they still seemed like opposites. Hence the surprise and the popularity of Playboy. The magazine proposed that wanton sex, sex for sexís sake, was wholesome, good for you: a novel idea in the nineteen-fifties.
When Hefner started out, he couldnít afford to commission centerfold photos, nor did he know any women who would take their clothes off at his bidding. So he bought girlie pictures from a local calendar company, and he chose well. In his first issue, he ran a nude photograph that Marilyn Monroe, famous by 1953, had posed for in 1949, when she was not famous, and needed money. It made the first issue a hit. Within a year, Playboy was able to afford its own photography, at which point the calendar girls were swept aside in favor of the girls next door. Unlike their predecessors, these girls tend to have their nipples covered, and they are not brazenly posing but, oops, caught by the photographer as they are climbing out of the bath or getting dressed. Several have on regulation-issue white underpants, up to the waist; one wears Mary Janes.
A decade later, the innocence has become less innocent, more self-awareóin a word, sixties. Now we get racial equality. (The first African-American Playmate appeared in 1965.) We get the great outdoors: Playmates taking sunbaths, unpacking picnics, hoisting their innocent bottoms into hammocks. Above all, we get youth. In January of 1958, the magazine had published a centerfold of a sixteen-year-old girl, with the result that Hefner was hauled into court for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. (The case was dismissed. Miss January had written permission from her mother.) After that, he made a rule that Playboy would never again publish a photograph of an unclothed woman under eighteen, but in the following years he did everything in his power to make the centerfold models look like jailbait. Two of the sixties Playmates have pigtails, tied with bows. One is reading the funny papers. Most of them have chubby cheeks, and flash us sweet smiles. At the same time, many of these nice little girls are fantastically large-breasted. Strange to say, this top-loading often makes them appear more childlike. The breasts are smooth and round and pink; they look like balloons or beach balls. The girl seems delighted to have them, as if they had just been delivered by Santa Claus.
Now and then over the years, Hefner experimented with small- or smallish-breasted Playmates. In late 1960, he had a serious fit of restraint: Joni Mattis, Miss November of that year, is posed in such a way as to cover not just her chest but most of her bottom. According to ìThe Playmate Book,î this centerfold was the least popular that the magazine ever published. Mattis received exactly one letter, from a clergyman advising her to find another line of work. By contrast, DeDe Lind, Miss August 1967, who looks to be about thirteen, and who displays, together with a big yellow hair ribbon, a pair of knockers rivalling Mae Westís, got more fan letters than any Playmate before or after. Playboy learned a lesson from DeDe: breasts count. At the end of ìThe Playmate Book,î we are given the average measurements of the Playmates from the sixties to the present: a modest 35-23-35. I donít believe this. Or, if itís true, thereís more to photography than I understand. In response to the Playboy centerfolds, Esquire eliminated its own pinups, the celebrated George Petty and Alberto Vargas drawings. In the words of Clay Felker, an editor at Esquire at that time, ìPlayboy out-titted us.î Hefner then had the field to himself. By the end of the sixties, one-fourth of all American college men were buying his magazine every month.

Continue reading “A history of Playboy magazine: THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR; Life in the centerfold.”

Gordon Parks: Weapon of Choice

JOHN WRANOVICS – The New York Times

A HUNGRY HEART
A Memoir.
By Gordon Parks.
346 pp. Atria Books. $26.
”Gypsy woman told my mama, before I was born / You got a boy-child comin’, gonna be a son-of-a-gun.” Gordon Parks’s life makes Willie Dixon’s old blues song ”Hoochie Coochie Man” sound like a documentary. In 1910, a fortuneteller traveling through rural Kansas predicted the arrival and rich life of Andrew Jackson Parks’s seventh son — ”You’re going to have another child — and he’s going to be a very special one.” That’s how the story was told to Gordon Parks by his older brother Clemmie. Gordon, born a couple years after the auspicious pronouncement, was Poppa Jack Parks’s 15th child, the 10th with his second wife, Sarah. And the gypsy lady was right. He would become one of the most celebrated African-American artists of the 20th century, accomplished and revered as a photographer, writer, composer and movie director.
But the child’s destiny was by no means obvious. After Sarah died, Parks, then 15, was sent from the family farm in Fort Scott, Kan. (he’d remember it as ”the mecca of bigotry”), to live in Minnesota with an older sister and her resentful husband. It wasn’t long before he was thrown into the street, hungry and broke, with nothing but a switchblade in his pocket. In the years that followed, he roamed the country, tackling a dizzying array of the grueling jobs available to a young black man without a high school diploma, including whorehouse piano player, waiter, busboy, traveling jazz band musician, Civilian Conservation Corps grunt and House of David basketball player.
It wasn’t until he was 27 that Parks’s future began to reveal itself. While working
as a Pullman porter, crisscrossing America on the North Coast Limited, he became transfixed by Dorothea Lange’s photos in a passenger’s left-behind magazine. Soon after, on a stop in Chicago, a newsreel of a sinking gunship and a personal appearance by its cameraman sealed his fate. After the train pulled into Seattle, Parks found his first camera, his ”weapon of choice,” in a pawnshop window. Parks’s untrained talent was quickly recognized and encouraged. Dual career paths defined the course of his life: he shot fashion photography for money, while documenting poverty and injustice, first in Chicago’s South Side ghettos. An exhibit of his photos won him a coveted Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, his ticket onto Roy Stryker’s all-star team of white, mostly college-educated Farm Security Administration photographers, including Lange. After politics closed down the F.S.A. project, Stryker took Parks with him to the Office of War Information (O.W.I.). There, Parks’s attempts to follow the Black 332nd Fighter Group into combat were stymied by government obstacles intended to minimize publicity for the black fliers.
It’s at this point that Parks ended his first autobiography, ”A Choice of Weapons” (1966). Since then, he has written three additional memoirs. ”A Hungry Heart” finds the 93-year-old writer looking backward once more over the groundbreaking victories and painful losses of a long and productive life. In it, he tells old stories anew and revisits key episodes, adding fresh details and perspective in a stripped-down anecdotal style. This is not a book about photos, but about the people in the viewfinder.
Parks was a one-man wrecking crew of racial barriers. After the O.W.I. and jobs at Vogue and Standard Oil, he became Life’s first black photographer. There he took on 52 assignments in his first 18 months alone. While Parks was photographing the black revolution, Malcolm X asked him to be godfather to one of his daughters (accepted) and Eldridge Cleaver invited him to serve as the Black Panthers’ minister of information (turned down). In 1969, encouraged by John Cassavetes, he became the first black American to helm a major studio film when he wrote, directed and composed the soundtrack for the movie version of his coming-of-age novel, ”The Learning Tree.” His next film, ”Shaft” (”Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt”), established the liberated image of the new black male action hero. Both films were named to the National Film Registry, ”The Learning Tree” in the inaugural list of 25 films in 1989. (Sadly, it and ”The Crowd,” King Vidor’s silent, are the only titles still unavailable in the United States on DVD.)
On the personal front, Parks failed to balance time on the road with a stable family life. Proud that he’s remained friends with all three of his former wives, he’s also honest about his weakness. His eye for beauty kept him in trouble: ”Let’s just say that if an attractive woman was dancing before me, I found it extremely difficult to allow her to dance alone.” The greatest loss for Parks, the father of four, was the death of his older son, Gordon Jr., the director of ”Superfly,” killed in a plane crash while on location in Africa in 1979.
”A Hungry Heart,” in addition to being a testimony to Parks’s wit, sensitivities and vast armory of talents, is a treatise on the value of encouragement. The miracle of his life is what he’s achieved with the opportunities he was given. In 1952, the conductor Dean Dixon, having premiered Parks’s ”Symphonic Set for Piano and Orchestra” in the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, told Time magazine: ”We should hear more from Gordon Parks.” Happily, we have again.
JOHN WRANOVICS.
John Wranovics is the author of ”Chaplin and Agee: The Untold Story of the Tramp, the Writer and the Lost Screenplay.”
A HUNGRY HEART
A Memoir.
By Gordon Parks.
346 pp. Atria Books. $26.
”Gypsy woman told my mama, before I was born / You got a boy-child comin’, gonna be a son-of-a-gun.” Gordon Parks’s life makes Willie Dixon’s old blues song ”Hoochie Coochie Man” sound like a documentary. In 1910, a fortuneteller traveling through rural Kansas predicted the arrival and rich life of Andrew Jackson Parks’s seventh son — ”You’re going to have another child — and he’s going to be a very special one.” That’s how the story was told to Gordon Parks by his older brother Clemmie. Gordon, born a couple years after the auspicious pronouncement, was Poppa Jack Parks’s 15th child, the 10th with his second wife, Sarah. And the gypsy lady was right. He would become one of the most celebrated African-American artists of the 20th century, accomplished and revered as a photographer, writer, composer and movie director.
But the child’s destiny was by no means obvious. After Sarah died, Parks, then 15, was sent from the family farm in Fort Scott, Kan. (he’d remember it as ”the mecca of bigotry”), to live in Minnesota with an older sister and her resentful husband. It wasn’t long before he was thrown into the street, hungry and broke, with nothing but a switchblade in his pocket. In the years that followed, he roamed the country, tackling a dizzying array of the grueling jobs available to a young black man without a high school diploma, including whorehouse piano player, waiter, busboy, traveling jazz band musician, Civilian Conservation Corps grunt and House of David basketball player.
It wasn’t until he was 27 that Parks’s future began to reveal itself. While working
as a Pullman porter, crisscrossing America on the North Coast Limited, he became transfixed by Dorothea Lange’s photos in a passenger’s left-behind magazine. Soon after, on a stop in Chicago, a newsreel of a sinking gunship and a personal appearance by its cameraman sealed his fate. After the train pulled into Seattle, Parks found his first camera, his ”weapon of choice,” in a pawnshop window. Parks’s untrained talent was quickly recognized and encouraged. Dual career paths defined the course of his life: he shot fashion photography for money, while documenting poverty and injustice, first in Chicago’s South Side ghettos. An exhibit of his photos won him a coveted Julius Rosenwald Fellowship, his ticket onto Roy Stryker’s all-star team of white, mostly college-educated Farm Security Administration photographers, including Lange. After politics closed down the F.S.A. project, Stryker took Parks with him to the Office of War Information (O.W.I.). There, Parks’s attempts to follow the Black 332nd Fighter Group into combat were stymied by government obstacles intended to minimize publicity for the black fliers.
It’s at this point that Parks ended his first autobiography, ”A Choice of Weapons” (1966). Since then, he has written three additional memoirs. ”A Hungry Heart” finds the 93-year-old writer looking backward once more over the groundbreaking victories and painful losses of a long and productive life. In it, he tells old stories anew and revisits key episodes, adding fresh details and perspective in a stripped-down anecdotal style. This is not a book about photos, but about the people in the viewfinder.
Parks was a one-man wrecking crew of racial barriers. After the O.W.I. and jobs at Vogue and Standard Oil, he became Life’s first black photographer. There he took on 52 assignments in his first 18 months alone. While Parks was photographing the black revolution, Malcolm X asked him to be godfather to one of his daughters (accepted) and Eldridge Cleaver invited him to serve as the Black Panthers’ minister of information (turned down). In 1969, encouraged by John Cassavetes, he became the first black American to helm a major studio film when he wrote, directed and composed the soundtrack for the movie version of his coming-of-age novel, ”The Learning Tree.” His next film, ”Shaft” (”Hotter than Bond, Cooler than Bullitt”), established the liberated image of the new black male action hero. Both films were named to the National Film Registry, ”The Learning Tree” in the inaugural list of 25 films in 1989. (Sadly, it and ”The Crowd,” King Vidor’s silent, are the only titles still unavailable in the United States on DVD.)
On the personal front, Parks failed to balance time on the road with a stable family life. Proud that he’s remained friends with all three of his former wives, he’s also honest about his weakness. His eye for beauty kept him in trouble: ”Let’s just say that if an attractive woman was dancing before me, I found it extremely difficult to allow her to dance alone.” The greatest loss for Parks, the father of four, was the death of his older son, Gordon Jr., the director of ”Superfly,” killed in a plane crash while on location in Africa in 1979.
”A Hungry Heart,” in addition to being a testimony to Parks’s wit, sensitivities and vast armory of talents, is a treatise on the value of encouragement. The miracle of his life is what he’s achieved with the opportunities he was given. In 1952, the conductor Dean Dixon, having premiered Parks’s ”Symphonic Set for Piano and Orchestra” in the courtyard of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, told Time magazine: ”We should hear more from Gordon Parks.” Happily, we have again.

Continue reading “Gordon Parks: Weapon of Choice”