It’s been more than 50 years since Kyle Johnson starred in “The Learning Tree,” the first major Hollywood film directed by a black man.
But the movie, directed by Gordon Parks and based on Parks’ semi-autobiographical novel of the same name, is still relevant today, according to Johnson, who played the role of 15-year-old Newt Winger.
“The courtroom scene at the end of the movie where the judge speaks to the outburst that led to the killing of the booker, I think is just as relevant and even more clear today,” said Johnson, who appeared at an event Monday morning. at Gordon Park High School Paul. “When are we not looking at the only disinformation, the undermining of democracy and even the Supreme Court … it is prescient.”
Johnson, 70, of Gila, NM, spent the weekend in St. Paul for “CHOICE Cinema Series: In the Footsteps of Gordon Parks,” organized by Robin Hickman-Winfield, Parks ’great niece. Hickman-Winfield teaches Parks’ legacy at an alternative high school.
“Can you imagine being an actor and a director of your own life stories in Hollywood? Seeing your names in the credits? ” Hickman-Winfield asked Johnson during an assembly featuring students. “That’s the work we’re doing here. That’s why I have chills. ”
Johnson said his mother, Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Nyota Uhura on “Star Trek,” read Parks’ book after it was published in 1963 and thought her son might one day be the lead role. In 1968, he got his chance.
Johnson said Parks with his audition was atypical. The Beverly Hills Hotel at The Bungalow at Two Meters, where Parks was staying, and “talking a bit,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t nervous. One point I thought was that he was going to ask me, but he never did. ”
Instead, the two just kept chatting, he said. Johnson: Could he swim, and could he ride a horse? Yes, and yes, he said.
A few weeks later, Johnson’s agent called to say Parks wanted him at Warner Bros. With a screen test for the studio, the actress would play her mother. He got another call a week or so later for another screen test, this time with the actor who played his brother. More screen tests followed.
“Then I got a call saying they’re going to start shooting in September,” he said. “I said, ‘What is shooting? What are you talking about Nobody had actually told me that I had the part. Up to that point, I was thinking, ‘How many screen tests do you have for Gordon Parks to make up his mind?’ Later he told me, ‘Oh no, you had the part when we first met. The screen tests were for the rest of them. ‘”
In addition to directing the movie, Parks, an accomplished photographer, wrote the film’s screenplay and music.
The movie was shot in 1968 in Fort Scott, Kan., At Parks’ hometown, where many pre-civil rights issues “were still unresolved,” Johnson said. “There are still many changes that are coming, but they are not enjoying, that people in other parts of the country are able to live their lives more fully.
“It was a wonderful experience, opportunity and honor to be part of something that literally changes people’s lives in real time,” he told the students. “It was a different place we left. There was no going back. There was only going forward. And here’s the room for you – your family, your community, your children, keep that progress moving. Keep it moving. ”
Davien Crews, 16, a junior at Gordon Park High School, said it was an honor to watch “The Learning Tree” and hear Johnson speak.
“It’s still a great film to this day,” he said. “It’s a very powerful, inspirational film for the Black culture as a whole to see what Gordon went through … because many of us are still going through the same things today.”
After the assembly, Crews and other students joined Hickman-Winfield’s class at Johnson’s dedication to the high school, the school’s own “learning tree,” an autumn gold gingko. Gingko trees, Hickman-Winfield explained, are among the oldest living tree species in the world.
The title of the book and movie comes from a conversation Newt Winger has with his mother, Sarah. Whenever he asks, he will always live in their small town, Sarah replies: “Well, I hope you will live here all your life. It’s not an all-good place. Not an all-bad place, either. Sort of like a tree on fruit. Some good, some bad. Understand? No matter if you go or stay, think of Cherokee Flats like that until the day you die. Let it be your learning tree. ”
Parks was one of 15 children; His mother, Sarah Parks, died when he was 14. After Soon, he was sent to St. Paul to live with his sister and brother-in-law.
Parks knew many people who lived with violence and “did not make it to adulthood,” Johnson said.
“Gordon’s study was a very real study,” Johnson told the students. “It was only through the very deep strength that he was able to survive, but not succumb to it or cause himself to fall into it. That kind of discipline and that kind of strength and love that he had from his family – he knew that his mother was looking over him, and that was the right path for him. ”