Gordon Parks was adamant: He did not make "black exploitation films."
Parks, the photographer turned pioneer filmmaker whose 1971 Shaft was, despite his protest, regarded as ushering in Hollywood's blaxploitation era, died Tuesday in New York, a nephew told the Associated Press. He was 93.
Parks' résumé didn't quit. He made movies, composed music, wrote poetry, screenplays and novels, and captured everyone from Muhammad Ali to Barbra Streisand in his camera lens for Life covers during a storied career at the oversized magazine that once dominated the national discussion.
Parks, who was black, lived long enough to be hailed as a leading "Negro photographer" in the 1960s, and a legendary "African-African photographer" in the 2000s. Through the years, he heard less flattering references, too.
"No, unlike James Baldwin I didn't live in Harlem," the Kansas-born Parks told the Newark (New Jersey) News in 1969, referring to the The Fire Next Time author, "but that doesn't mean I didn't suffer. Unless you don't call being called 'nigger' and 'boy' suffering."
Born Nov. 30, 1912, Parks was inspired to pursue a life in pictures in his mid-20s upon seeing a newsreel of the 1937 Japanese naval attack on the USS Panay. By 1949, the former busboy and piano band player was a Life staffer.
Twenty years later, Parks moved into moving pictures with The Learning Tree, based on his autobiographical novel of coming of age in the Midwest. A Warner Brothers release, The Learning Tree made Parks, in the parlance of 1969, "the first Negro to direct a major Hollywood feature."
Two years later, Parks became a bankable director with Shaft. Starring Richard Roundtree and featuring Isaac Hayes' signature music, the detective drama was made for $1.1 million, and grossed $23.2 million, per What It Is...What It Was!, a history of the blaxploitation film. It was, in the parlance of 1971 or any other year, a hit.
Undeniably, Shaft was not just another Philip Marlowe gumshoe tale, though Parks would argue it was. P.I. John Shaft looked lean and mean in leather. The story, set in Harlem, concerned drugs, the Mafia, black mobsters, and no shortage of gunfire. The Oscar-winning theme bragged--"Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine to all the chicks?...Shaft!...Damn right."
"It was the first time I actually saw someone who looked like me, sounded like me, dressed the way I always wanted to dress and played a hero," said Samuel L. Jackson, who starred in the 2000 Shaft remake, in Detroit's Metro Times at the time of the new film's release. "[John Shaft] was our first real hero. It was all about black pride, and he was very proud."
Minus a pimp or two, Shaft provided the blueprint for scores of black-populated action films to follow, including those directed by Parks' own son, Gordon Parks Jr., whose credits included Superfly and Three the Hard Way.
Along with Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baad Asssss Song, also released in 1971, Shaft was credited with giving rise to the blaxploitation film, defined by American Heritage Dictionary as being a particular 1970s creature that "featur[ed] African-American actors in lead roles and often having anti-establishment plots."
The dictionary also notes that the genre drew heated criticism, and it did--some from its would-be target audience who viewed the films, especially Parks Jr.'s Superfly, as glorifying violence and underworld figures.
Parks Sr. certainly wanted nothing to do with the label. As he declared to the Village Voice in 1976: "I don't make black exploitation films."
At the time, Parks was upset that his latest film, Leadbelly, a biopic about the blues singer, was being marketed like a Jim Brown shoot-'em-up.
"Here's a film that's neither blaxploitation nor Robert Redford," Parks told the Voice, "and Paramount doesn't know what to do with it."
Leadbelly marked the end of Parks' Hollywood directing career. Blaxploitation, the genre he either did or didn't inspire, itself would die out after 1978 when Hollywood studios shied away from the so-called black film in the wake of the big-budget bomb that was The Wiz, a musical that had not a thing in common with Shaft or Superfly other than it, too, was headed by a black cast.
Parks' other directing credits included the 1972 Shaft sequel, Shaft's Big Score!, and the 1984 PBS production, Solomon Northup's Odyssey.
Never defined by or confined to Hollywood, Parks worked at his various and acclaimed careers even into his 90s. Just last November, his latest memoir, A Hungry Heart, was published.
Parks lost his son Gordon Parks Jr. to a plane crash in 1979. But he had scores of other survivors, from family, to friends, to his films.
"The Shaft attitude, walk and look--none of that was mine. That was all Gordon," Roundtree said in the Calgary Sun in 2000. "He knew what he wanted and I just tried to give it to him."