Workmanlike in presentation but scintillating in its content, A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks is a portrait of an artist whose work was so varied, impactful, and boundary-leaping that it’s hard to imagine anyone like him coming around again. Taking its name from the title of Parks’s 1966 autobiography A Choice of Weapons, John Maggio’s documentary is as much about the intent behind and the after effects of the famous photographer and filmmaker’s work as it is about the work itself.
This might seem obvious, especially when you think about what Parks once told an interviewer: “I saw that the camera could be a weapon against poverty, against racism, against all sorts of social wrongs.” But it’s easy to see other directors following a far more standard biopic approach than Maggio, who breaks up accounts of different sections of Parks’s life with segments driven by black photographers inspired by the man’s work.
Born in 1912 and raised on a Kansas farm, Parks lived by his wits and talents (which included playing piano in a Minneapolis brothel) before finding photography. A stint at the Farm Security Administration in 1942 resulted almost accidentally in a stark, Dorothea Lange-esque series about black cleaning woman Ella Watson. One of the portraits, American Gothic, Washington, D.C., which showed her standing dourly in front of an American flag inside the FSA, was considered so politically incendiary that it almost got Parks fired.
In the late ’40s, Parks became the first black staff photographer at Life. As depicted by Maggio, the following decades saw him carving out one of those glorious careers that balanced glamor and grit. The former was exemplified by Parks’s portraits of the likes of Muhammad Ali and Gloria Vanderbilt; interviewee Anderson Cooper remembers his mother and Parks being such good friends that the photographer was a frequent weekend guest at their vacation home, while the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb notes, “If celebrity is a language, Gordon spoke it fluently.”
Maggio, though, pays more attention throughout A Choice of Weapons to the non-famous subjects in Parks’s canon. He includes long segments of experts and photographers digging into his groundbreaking photo essays on street crime, Jim Crow, the Nation of Islam, and an especially touching one on a Harlem gang leader which was seen as particularly revelatory for showing, as Nelson George says in the film, that “no one’s a gangster 24 hours a day.”
Most of the present-day photographers featured here seem to be as inspired, if not more so, by Parks’s social conscience and empathy for his subjects as they are by his technical artistry and dramatic framing. By far the best known of these is Jamel Shabazz, who picked up on Parks’s ability to get close and comfortable with his subjects before shooting a single frame, even though the end product as seen here is more posed and less painterly than Parks’s work. Baltimore activist and photojournalist Devin Allen recounts lovingly paging through Parks’s photographs in a public library, learning about framing and the intersection of art and activism before taking the dramatic shot of the Freddie Gray protests that graced the cover of Time in 2015. Latoya Ruby Frazier’s photo essay of a family struggling through the Flint water crisis feels closer to the timelessness of Parks’s earlier poverty-focused work.
Though Maggio provides a decent recounting of Parks’s shift from photography to cinema in a segment on 1969’s The Learning Tree (the first major studio film directed by an African-American person) and 1971’s Shaft, that part of his career is less carefully covered. This could be because while those works are appreciated today in a historical sense, and none of the interviewees come out and say this, it seems clear from the gorgeous and captivating work collected here that Parks’s photography is what will stand the test of time.