The Learning Tree


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With this tender and clear-eyed coming-of-age odyssey, the renowned photographer turned filmmaker Gordon Parks not only became the first Black American director to make a Hollywood studio film, he also served as writer, producer, and composer, resulting in a deeply personal artistic achievement. Based on Parks’s own semi-autobiographical novel, The Learning Tree follows the journey of Newt Winger (Kyle Johnson), a teenage descendant of Exodusters growing up in rural Kansas in the 1920s, as he experiences the bittersweet flowering of first love, finds his relationship with a close friend tested, and navigates the injustices embedded within a racist legal and educational system. Exquisitely capturing the bucolic splendor of its heartland setting, this landmark film tempers nostalgia with an incisive understanding of the harsh realities, hard-won lessons, and often wrenching moral choices that shape the road to self-determination of the young Black man at its center.

Picture 9/10

The Criterion Collection presents Gordon Park’s debut film The Learning Tree on Blu-ray, delivered in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation is sourced from a new 2K restoration. A 35mm interpositive was the source.

Despite the lack of the original negative this presentation still looks wonderful. The opening sequence around a tornado, which I’m sure incorporates optical effects, can look a bit rough, but after this sequence the image keeps a crisp and clean look, delivering stunning detail and clarity. I was even impressed by the encoding, which can be hit-or-miss with Criterion’s titles as of late, but film grain comes out looking sharp and natural, and I don’t recall any instances around noise. I also can’t say any other artifacts ever stuck out, and the end presentation has a wonderful film quality look.

Colours lean warmer, though it seems intentional, the film seeming to go for more of dusty-like colour scheme, and nothing ever comes off overly yellow, and blues still look blue. Black levels are also very strong, still delivering shadow details without eating them up. There are a few minor marks, but the restoration work has cleaned things up to a significant degree. I should mention there is one aspect that did throw me a little, but there is the possibility it's more source related: there are a couple of shots where the image looks to have been compressed downwards, flattening things out. One instance revolves around long shots in the courtroom near the end, from behind the judge, with another instance popping up during long shot on the road during the final moments of the film. This could be intentional or maybe a byproduct of the camera lens, but outside of a horrifying underwater shot early on during a trippy dream sequence, there’s nothing else of the sort in the film. Again, it could be intentional and baked into the film, but wanted to point it out.

In all, the film has received a lot of love here and it looks all the better because of it.

(As a note, the film opens with the original Warner Bros.-Seven Arts style logo.)

Audio 7/10

The film’s single-channel monaural soundtrack is presented in lossless PCM. It’s sharp and manages to show off some surprising range in both voices and music. I don’t recall any severe instances of damage, either.

Extras 9/10

Gordon Park’s debut into the Criterion library comes in a nicely stacked special edition, which starts things off with a 27-minute making-of documentary filmed during the making of The Learning Tree by the director’s son, Gordon Parks Jr., who also narrates. Entitled My Father: Gordon Parks, it can be viewed primarily as a making-of, gathering interviews with the senior Parks and members of the cast and crew, Estelle Evans mentioning how she read the novel and immediately wrote Parks about wanting a role in any film adaptation. It also works as a portrait, examining the artist's work as a still photographer and author, along with his growth as a filmmaker. In the case of the latter, Parks thankfully had many on his crew who were willing to teach him the technical aspects he may not have been as well versed in at the time.

To accompany this Criterion has also put together a couple of new interview featurettes, the first featuring curator Rhea L. Combs along filmmakers Diane Archer, Ernest B. Dickerson and Nelson George, followed by a discussion featuring artists/art historians Hank Willis Thomas and his mother Deborah Willis, moderated by Michael B. Gillespie, running 29-minutes and 18-minutes respectively. The first group, all filmed individually, talk about the film and Parks' work specifically, covering everything from his photography and compositions (which Dickerson gets heavy into) to the film’s messages and presentation of power dynamics, the latter of which is not presented in a simple manner.

It's a great examination of the film (and it's a bit of a shame some of the participants weren't able to contribute to some sort of commentary) but I was more taken by the second interview. This discussion revolves mostly around the influence of Parks’ work, but the three also talk about the historical significance of the film, not only as the first studio film to be directed by a black filmmaker, but also how the film captures a specific group of people at a certain point in American history: the first descendants of the Exodusters, a large group of African Americans who migrated after the Civil War, settling in Kansas. This leads to discussion around Hank Willis Thomas’ 2019 art show around the migration, featuring photos from the period together with material from The Learning Tree. It’s a wonderful addition that adds some wonderful context around the film and its story that may not be immediately clear to first-time viewers.

Criterion also throws in two documentaries that had Parks' involvement, the 20-minute Diary of a Harlem Family, directed by Joseph Filipowic, followed by the 60-minute The World of Piri Thomas. Both films deal with similar subject matter, that of poverty in the U.S. The first (which was filmed by Parks) is based on Park’s photo essay “A Harlem Family,” published in LIFE magazine in 1967, and appears to use those same photos (with some filmed footage) alongside voice-over narration that I assume replicates that essay. It captures the dire living conditions the documented family finds themselves in and how the costs of being poor keep the family where they are, whether it be from job losses or chronic medical conditions, the latter of which being more than likely related to their living conditions.

The second film is a portrait of Spanish Harlem in the 60’s, with author Piri Thomas and his book, Down These Mean StreetsI, coming front and center. Thomas will appear, reading from his book, combined with footage of the various local citizens who suffer from poverty, drug addiction and/or chronic bad health. It's all presented through a mix of documentary footage and what I guess one could call “reenactments,” and it pushes to show how it all ends up harmfully impacting the children. It can be difficult to watch, from drug abusers to stories around the things most take for granted daily, like one man who explains how he only uses electricity when absolutely necessary, but then the difficulty is almost certainly the point.

Both films are fantastic additions to the release, and they’re accompanied by an introduction featuring Combs and George again. The two spend the 8-minutes talking about Parks’ early work and photography, including how his sense for composing frames carried over to his film work.

The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer followed by a 7-minute archival featurette created around the time of the making of the film, called Moviemakers. The latter is a typical production featurette, but it does present a rather lengthy discussion with Parks, who even talks about his photography work in Italy, which is also covered in some of the other features on the disc. Criterion also throws in a 40-page booklet. The booklet, much to my surprise, does not contain any new scholarly essay around the film, but it does feature the text from Parks’ 1963 photo essay, “How It Feels to Be Black” (along with at least some of the photos), published in LIFE magazine. The booklet also features excerpts from his 2005 memoir, A Hungry Heart, where the author/photographer/filmmaker recounts what drew him to writing the novel The Learning Tree and his path as a filmmaker. One of the stronger recent booklets from Criterion.

It's a solid special edition, the supplements covering the bases around its production and its importance in film history, while also offering a wonderful introduction to the work of Gordon Parks.


The release kind of snuck in there at the tail end of 2021 and may have been overshadowed by other titles (Citizen Kane, Criterion’s move to 4K) but it’s one of Criterion’s best put-together editions from the year, featuring an incredible looking presentation and some wonderful supplementary material. I would really push others to seek this release out.


Directed by: Gordon Parks
Year: 1969
Time: 107 min.
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1107
Licensor: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Release Date: December 14 2021
MSRP: $39.95
1 Disc | BD-50
1.37:1 ratio
2.35:1 ratio
English 1.0 Dolby Digital Mono
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 New documentary on the making of the film, featuring artist and critic Ina Diane Archer, curator Rhea L. Combs, and filmmakers Ernest Dickerson and Nelson George   New conversation, moderated by film scholar Michael B. Gillespie, between artist Hank Willis Thomas and art historian Deborah Willis about the influence of director Gordon Parks   My Father: Gordon Parks (1969), a documentary made on the set of The Learning Tree, narrated by Gordon Parks Jr., and featuring interviews with Gordon Parks Sr. and members of the cast and crew   Diary of a Harlem Family and The World of Piri Thomas, two 1968 films on which Parks played creative roles, with a new introduction by Rhea L. Combs   Unstoppable (2005), a documentary featuring producer Warrington Hudlin in conversation with Parks and filmmakers Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles   Trailer   “How It Feels to Be Black,” a 1963 Life magazine photo-essay by Gordon Parks, and an excerpt from the director’s 2005 book A Hungry Heart: A Memoir