Had Leadbelly (1976) been made by a white filmmaker, it probably would have taken heat for its depiction of black life in the South in the early 20th century.
This isn’t a sanitized, politically correct version of social history. The characters talk in what sounds – to my ears anyway – like the dialect of uneducated, poor rural African Americans of the era.
Similarly there are scenes of black folks partying and having a good old time that might strike some as promoting black stereotypes.
But it’s difficult to make those criticisms stick when the maker of the film is Gordon Parks (1912-2006), the Midwest-born African-American photographer and moviemaker who himself rose from rural poverty (Fort Scott, Kansas) to become one of Life magazine’s most celebrated photojournalists, a respected novelist and memoirist, and a successful commercial filmmaker.
Leadbelly begins in 1933 at Louisiana’s Angola Prison Farm, where folklorist John Lomax has come to record the music of inmate Huddie William Ledbetter (1888-1949). The film – scripted by veteran TV writer Ernest Kinoy – is basically a flashback as Leadbelly sits in a prison office, playing into a recording machine and reminiscing about 30 years of hard life in and out of jail.
Throughout the film we see Leadbelly (Roger Mosely) evolve from wide-eyed innocent country boy (well, maybe not so innocent when it comes to the ladies) to swaggering, hot-tempered (and violence-prone) young man to a still-robust white hair carrying the weight of years of sin and experience.
It’s interesting that while the film portrays black life in a segregated society, it doesn’t aim to be a depiction of the “bad old days.” Racism is simply a fact of life for these characters, along with laboring in the cotton fields and tying one on on Friday night. While racism is certainly part of Leadbelly’s story, Parks was subtle enough a filmmaker to recognize that putting too much emphasis on it would tilt the story away from its focus on biography and music.
Though technically it rarely rises above the level of a made-for-TV effort (the budget was limited, especially for a film that embraces nearly 40 years of American history), Leadbelly has an amazing soundtrack of songs made famous by (and often written by) the film’s subject: “Midnight Special,” “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” “Blind Lemon Blues,” “Goodnight Irene,” “John Henry,” “Rock Island Line,” “Old Time Religion,” and many others.
As it turned out, Parks was an ideal choice to tell Leadbelly’s story. His first job as a teenager was playing a piano in a brothel (and as an adult Parks was a jazz pianist and composed a concerto for piano and orchestra and a ballet dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.). No doubt that’s why the film feels so authentic.
Leadbelly was Parks’ last theatrical film. He started out in the 1950s making TV documentaries on various aspects of black life. In 1969 he became Hollywood’s first major black director by helming The Learning Tree, based on his own semi-autobiographical novel of growing up in racially-segregated Kansas in the 1920s (and filmed in Fort Scott).
Two years later Parks delivered a huge box office hit in Shaft, which was considerably more sophisticated than most of the so-called “blaxploitation” pictures of the era. He followed it up with the sequel Shaft’s Big Score, and then The Super Cops, based on the true exploits of a couple of white New York City police detectives known as Batman and Robin.
Parks’ cinematic output was limited to the 1970s. But until his death he remained tremendously active as a writer, composer, photographer, and occasional director for television.
Today a Kansas City grade school bears his name.
Other films in the series “Hollywood's Music”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 1: 8 Mile (2002) Rated R
- April 8: Mo' Better Blues (1990) Rated R
- April 15: Cadillac Records (2008) Rated R
- April 22: Coal Miner's Daughter (1980) Rated PG
- April 29: The Mambo Kings (1992) Rated R
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- April 6: Leadbelly (1976) Rated PG
- April 13: A Great Day In Harlem (1994) Not Rated
- April 20: American Graffiti (1973) Rated PG
- April 27: Every Little Step (2008) Rated PG-13
Admission to these films is free.
The series complements the six-week program America’s Music: A Film History of Our Popular Music from Blues to Bluegrass to Broadway.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.