The HBO film showcases the artists of today who draw inspiration from Gordon Parks as they too use their cameras to confront systemic inequities and celebrate their subjects.
Photographer, filmmaker, and activist Gordon Parks had a choice of weapons. “A knife, a gun,” as he states in his autobiography. But Parks decided to use his camera to expose disparities in the African American community.
Now, his autobiography has been turned into a documentary that looks at his trailblazing career as a creator and highlights Black artists today following in Parks’ footsteps. The film was largely funded and created by the Gordon Parks Foundation, an organization working to preserve Parks’ legacy in different mediums.
The film was directed by John Maggio, who was in attendance at the premiere in New York’s Museum of Modern Art last Wednesday. Maggio emphasized the documentary’s connection to both the past and the present serve as a reminder that issues Parks captured on film are still relevant.
“We’ve seen it with George Floyd. We’ve seen it throughout the last decade, really, that people have the power to sort of use phones, technology, and social media for real positive change, and they recognize the importance and aspire to that. Just as Parks used his camera to create change,” Maggio said.
The film begins by looking at Parks’ upbringing in Kansas during Jim Crow. Parks attended a segregated school and dealt with poverty throughout his childhood. He took up odd jobs as a young man before he bought his first camera at 25. Parks photographed portraits of Black Americans over the South. His work caught the attention of Life magazine who he worked with throughout his career.
For years, Parks documented racial segregation along with high profiled African American celebrities including Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. However, Parks never limited his camera to uncovering the truth and difficulties of life as an African American. He additionally captured fashion, art, and culture across the country. He later made his directorial debut with “Shaft,” an action comedy film about a stylish private detective.
Parks’ drive touched everyone he worked with. His legacy inspires generations of artists and creators to understand that the power of their craft. Interviews with film directors, social justice activists, photographers, and those who knew Parks personally are scattered within the film. Spike Lee, Ava Duvernay, and Bryan Stevenson are all featured subjects.
Stevenson, best known as the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy”, told us prior to the documentary screening, “Gordon Parks had a masterful skill in getting people to trust him. And I think a lot of artists may not have confronted the fact that they have to be willing to give up some of what they want to kind of bring people in. I think that comes through the film. I think it certainly comes through Gordon Parks. And I’m really eager for people to see that and also to just appreciate his artistry and the impact that he’s had on not only photography but art and film and storytelling in this country.”
“A Choice of Weapons” weaves in both Parks’ life and the lives of several Black visual artists within its 90 minute run time. Devin Allen, a subject in the film and a photographer, gained popularity after a photo Allen took during the Freddie Gray protests in 2015 was published as Time magazine’s May 2015 cover photo.
“Gordon is an idol to me. He literally saved my life. He’s one of the reasons why I picked up a camera,” Allen said.
“But when they talk about African American culture in schools, you don’t even hear his name. So I hope people see this film and understand how vital he was to the movement. I hope people look at this and feel empowered, inspired. And also from my story from coming up in a small city like Baltimore, that dreams really do come true,” Allen said.
LaToya Ruby Frazier, another photographer, was immensely inspired by Parks early on in her career. Frazier mainly takes black and white portraiture to uncover themes of social justice. Over the course of the film, Frazier documents a family affected by the five-year Flint water crisis. Frazier never leaves the family’s side, continuously taking her camera to their home.
Frazier said, “I first discovered Gordon Parks and learned about him from a black woman that was in a homeless shelter in Erie, Pennsylvania, in 1999. I had made her portraits because I was working on a series about a large number of homeless families around that region of Pennsylvania during that time. And when I took her portrait, and I brought it back to her the next week. She said this portrait reminded her of a photographer she once saw on PBS. His name is Gordon Parks. And then I immediately ran to Barnes and Noble and bought “Half Past Autumn.”
“I think why I’m sharing this is because it’s not a coincidence that it would be a beautiful black woman at a homeless shelter that first taught me about Gordon Parks and not a university. So his portrait of Ella Watson in 1942 is one of the most influential portraits to me because it taught me how to speak through a photograph. And also because I think the question he raises with that picture of Ella Watson, is what is the value of a black woman’s life in America?”
For the crew behind the film, the most rewarding aspect is that Parks’ legacy will be remembered as exactly what it was—revolutionary. He became the first African American to direct a major motion picture, the first to have images featured in popular publications, and helped to create discourse about racial inequality. There’s a great balance between telling Parks’ story while additionally presenting his impact. The documentary never shies away from presenting his struggles too.
“A Choice of Weapons” never ends. In fact, one will leave the theater wondering what their weapon is. Not a physical weapon, but a symbol of art and resistance. And today, that idea remains prevalent for Black artists.
“A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” is now available on HBO Max.