The ‘Pressure to Make Good for Your Whole People’ and the Story Behind SuperFly

Publicity still portrait of American directors Gordon Parks Sr and his son Gordon Parks Jr on the set of the Warner Bros. film 'The Learning Tree,' circa 1969.

The movie SuperFly that comes out this week shares a name with the 1972 film Super Fly, though “they serve different audiences, they serve different worlds,” as TIME’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek puts it in her review. But, even with all those differences, both movies also share a link to an important part of American history — and the history of LIFE Magazine.

The original Super Fly was directed by Gordon Parks Jr., whose father Gordon Parks, who died at 93 in 2006, was the first African-American staff photographer at LIFE and a co-founder of Essence magazine.

In the autobiographical novel that inspired 1969’s movie The Learning Tree — which made him the first African-American director of a major Hollywood movie — Parks Sr. summed up why he became a photographer. He wrote that he sought to portray “how certain blacks, who were fed up with racism, rebelled against it.” After joining LIFE in 1949, in between photographing subjects as varied as the Paris fashion scene and Benedictine monks, he worked to convince African-Americans readers that they could trust the magazine to tell their stories, even though most of its staffers were white. At the same time, by default, he served as a translator of black life for many of LIFE’s non-African-American readers.

“There is this pressure to make good for your whole people,” he told TIME in 1953. “If you fail, they give you a black eye.”

Some of his most famous photo essays depicted black Muslims — with guidance from Malcolm X — and the life of the Fontenelles, a typical Harlem family; so many readers were moved by the family’s struggle to make ends meet that they sent in enough money to help the family move into a bigger home in Queens. As photographer Andre D. Wagner recently wrote for TIME, “It’s the dignity of the people that he was able to capture and his ability to get below the skin that made his pictures undeniable.”

 

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