The cat that won’t cop out

Claire Joseph

Making it big in the world of culture is never easy. But for Gordon Parks, the hard part has been knowing where to stop.

Parks exemplifies artistic talent in a number of media. Noted for his abilities in photography, film direction, writing and composing, Parks paved the way for black artists, and he serves as a role model for all artists.

In an interview with The Minnesota Daily, Lou Bellamy, University theater professor and the founder and artistic director of the internationally renowned Penumbra Theatre Company, Minnesota’s only all-black theater group, noted that Parks’ ability to work so well in so many different artistic contexts is a feat that should not be taken lightly.

“Artistic expression comes out in so very many ways,” and, like Parks, “some folks have the ability to put that all together,” Bellamy said.

Bellamy will narrate “Witness: A Celebration of the Legacy of Gordon Parks” Sunday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul. Parks, now 93 years old, is expected to be present at the show.

“I respect and care very much about Mr. Parks,” Bellamy said. Therefore, Bellamy “jumped at the chance to do something to tribute him.”

While Bellamy narrates, a choir, actors and photography projected onto a large screen will help tell the story of Parks’ life.

“The script is centering on (Parks’) ability to find his muse and to constantly reinvent himself,” Bellamy said.

This reinvention not only showed Parks to be a brilliant artist but also enhanced his artistic survival.

Early in his career, Parks was extremely poor and had to take on many projects just to make his way.

“You’ve got to be able to retool and change as the world changes,” Bellamy said.

Parks’ most well-known claim to fame is his direction of the hit movie “Shaft.” In a period when Hollywood was in a slump, moviemakers had to regroup and address the fact that “Shaft” and other movies starring black actors (oftentimes referred to as “blaxploitation” films) were a primary way to keep Hollywood’s economic market afloat. “Shaft” was MGM Studios’ first big-budget Hollywood blaxploitation film.

Bellamy said he thinks the term “blaxploitation” is “unfair,” though, because “Shaft” was simply “a movie with black people in it.” These films “saved Hollywood, and we shouldn’t forget that,” Bellamy said.

The influence of “Shaft” is still evident today. One major aspect of the film was its outstanding music. Isaac Hayes, himself a multitalented composer and actor, created the songs in the film. “Shaft” won an Academy Award for best score, and “Theme From Shaft” was a huge hit. Accepting his 1971 Academy Award in a shirt made solely of chains, Hayes was the first black composer to win an Academy Award.

Parks and Hayes helped to produce film scores that, according to Bellamy, “Quentin Tarantino is still copying!” Bellamy will celebrate Parks’ much-imitated, pioneering spirit Sunday.