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Listening to Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks looks back on his life's journey in Listen to a Stranger (1973).

During a month that celebrates the history and accomplishments of African Americans, it’s more than appropriate to highlight Listen to a Stranger: An Interview with Gordon Parks (1973). Preserved through a 2019 NFPF grant by Washington University in St. Louis, this once-rare documentary honors an artist whose work in photography and film were equally groundbreaking.

Gordon Parks (1912–2006) trailblazed with his camera; starting at the Farm Security Administration he became the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine, documenting myriad aspects of American life during the onset of the Civil Rights era. By 1969 he had moved into cinema with The Learning Tree, adapted from his own novel, becoming the first African American to direct a major Hollywood studio feature. His next film was the seminal Blaxploitation classic Shaft (1971).

Listen to a Stranger: An Interview with Gordon Parks (1973) shows him being interviewed at his Beverly Hills home and on-set directing Shaft’s Big Score (1972). As notable as the film’s subject is its production company Blackside, Inc., which would later create the seminal Civil Rights series Eyes on the Prize (1987). Founded by Henry Hampton in 1968, Blackside dedicated itself to documenting struggles for civil rights and social justice, with a focus on the poor and disenfranchised. Starting from a team of three employees, by the late 1980s Blackside grew into the largest African American–owned film production company of the era, collecting Peabody and Emmy awards for series like Eyes, The Great Depression (1993), and I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts (1999).

Before its later triumphs, Blackside was a small company that produced PSA spots and industrial films. Listen to a Stranger was one of its first documentaries, made with funds from a National Endowment for the Humanities grant and commissioned by the Education Development Center as part of its “People and Technology” educational curriculum. Producer/editor Howard Dammond and director/cameraman Romas Slezas alternated interview footage of Parks with landscape and interior footage shot onboard the Santa Fe Railway’s “Super Chief,” providing a visual metaphor of his artistic and personal journey. Parks discusses his family background, early jobs (including a traveling waiter on trains), dreams, sources of inspiration, and his differing approaches to cinematography and photography.

Before its preservation, Listen to a Stranger was hard to see or find. Washington University in St. Louis used as its source material a 16mm print donated by Romas Slezas, who sadly passed away before the film’s reemergence. University archivist Tyler Bequette applied for and received an NFPF grant to fund preservation lab work. Since the print suffered from magenta fading, it was scanned at 2K, received digital color and density correction, and was then output back to 16mm. Digital access copies received closed captioning.

Listen to a Stranger perfectly complements the other holdings of The Film & Media
Archive at Washington University, which is home to the Henry Hampton Collection and all of the surviving archival materials belonging to Hampton and Blackside, Inc. Researchers of African American filmmaking are able to access Blackside’s stock footage, producer research files, treatments and early versions of scripts, administrative files, and many other documents. Another early Blackside film preserved through NFPF-funding, Code Blue (1972), can be viewed on our website.

The University had planned to partner with the St. Louis International Film Festival to screen Listen to a Stranger for the fiftieth anniversary of Shaft in 2021. Thanks to Covid-19 this event might not come to pass, but in the meantime viewers everywhere can listen to Gordon Parks online.

Tags: streaming video, grant film

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