Half Past Autumn was filmed and released when a touring photographic retrospective of Gordon Parks work was in its second year. Best-known as a top photojournalist for LIFE magazine, Parks also achieved fame when he switched careers in 1969, and subsequently directed the first Shaft film, in 1971 - but there's so much more to this articulate artist who's responsible for capturing and documenting some of America's most prominent historical and media figures - Malcolm X, Ingrid Bergman - and the plight of the oppressed, poor and destitute.
Most notably, Parks traveled to Brazil during the 1960s, and came back with a vivid photo essay on a boy named Flavio, living with and shepherding his siblings in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The moving black & white images in LIFE magazine motivated a public call to help the boy - destined to die from malnutrition within a year - and spurned money and the purchase of a home for Flavio's family. The event marked a more innocent time, when human interest stories still affected the general public without overtly exploitive flash.
As with myriad interviews with colleagues, ex-wives, family members and contemporary artists, the doc also covers a reunion between Parks and Flavio, and examines his longtime friendship and relationship with Malcolm X's family, particularly after the civil rights leader's murder. Much of the film's narrative uses Parks' fine photography and film work, plus generous extracts from his original concert and film music. (Parks wrote, directed and scored Shaft's Big Score! and his 1969 feature film debut, The Learning Tree).
There's a lot of clips from the rarely-seen Learning Tree to illustrate his formative childhood in racially divided Kansas, the 1976 bio-drama, Leadbelly, and moments from the short film he made of Flavio, in 1964.
The doc's interviews and film clips also function as minor but important addendums to his outstanding and deeply moving 1990 autobiography, Voices in the Mirror, which poetically captured the racial tensions and divisions Parks overcame to become a renaissance man.
HBO's DVD lacks any extras - a bit of a pity, given Parks' short films are still unavailable on home video, and would have supported the doc with some valuable historical material - but the doc alone (executive co-produced by Denzel Washington) should motivate viewers to check out his fiction and non-fiction writings, and the few films that are currently on DVD.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan
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