Gordon Parks should need no introduction. And yet the world is large and collective memory can be brief, so there are no doubt people out there who would be delighted to be introduced to the life and work of Gordon Parks, if only they knew he existed. A good way to begin that introduction is with the 1987 documentary Moments Without Proper Names, directed by Parks himself and written by Parks and Shep Morgan.
Parks was born in 1912 in to a farming family in Kansas, the youngest of 15 children. He attended a segregated elementary school, and, although his high school was integrated, he was not allowed to participate in school sports and activities due to his race. Following his mother’s death, Parks was sent to live with one of his sisters in Chicago, only to be kicked out of the house and left to fend for himself at age 15. I mention this early biography in part because it is so different from those of many young people who aim for a career in the arts today, for whom expensive educations and curated experiences and seem to be the norm—and what a loss it would have been if gatekeepers of Parks’ day had demanded he produce transcripts or recommendations rather than judging his work on its quality.
While working at a variety of jobs, Parks bought a camera from a pawnshop and taught himself to use it, soon finding work as a fashion and portrait photographer while also using photography as a tool to explore, understand, and communicate the realities of African-American life to others. Working for the Farm Security Administration in the then-segregated city of Washington, D.C., Parks produced one of his best-known photographs, American Gothic (1942). Parks also worked for the Office of War Information and Life magazine, and enjoyed multiple exhibitions of his photography in art museums.
In 1969, Parks directed The Learning Tree, a semi-autobiographical film about an African American teenager growing in rural Kansas, in the process becoming the first African-American to direct a film for a major American studio. A few years later, he helped created or helped to create the blaxploitation genre with Shaft (1971), starring Richard Roundtree and with music by Isaac Hayes. Parks also wrote music (some of which is heard on the soundtrack for this film) and books, composed a ballet, and co-founded Essence magazine, so you see I’m not exaggerating when I say he’s someone worth knowing about.
Moments Without Proper Names is a poetic, almost dream-like film, eschewing straightforward narration of facts in favor of a juxtaposition of Parks’ words (read by Avery Brooks, Roscoe Lee Browne, and Joe Seneca) with a series of still photographs and movie clips. Some of the images I recognized as Parks’ own, but I couldn’t swear that all were (identifying chyrons would have been welcome, although they would also have distracted from the immersive effect that Parks created with this film).
Moments Without Proper Names is as good a cinematic introduction to Parks and his works as you will find—it’s eminently approachable, conveys a sense of who Parks was and what his work was about and, at just 58 minutes, leaves the viewer eager for more. For those interested in following up, it’s worth noting that many of his books are still in print, some of his films are available for streaming or purchase, and beyond that, there’s always the resources available at your local public library. | Sarah Boslaugh
Moments Without Proper Names is distributed on Blu-ray and DVD by Kino Lorber, with a street date of July 6. Extras on the disc include an audio commentary by producer Shep Morgan and executive producer Jeanne Wolf, the short film “Flavio” (11 min.), directed by Gordon Parks, and the short film “Listen to a Stranger: An Interview with Gordon Parks” (19 min).