By Tribune Staff
John Maggio’s “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” spotlights an extraordinary life. Parks was a photographer, filmmaker, composer, author, eyewitness to several major events of the 20th century, and most importantly a great storyteller. The documentary, which debuted on HBO Monday, documents that, though not as completely as some would like.
“A Choice of Weapons” combines Parks’ photographs with footage of the artist in conversation, supported by reflections from a starry cast of interviewees. The participants include filmmakers Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee; actor Richard Roundtree; photographer LaToya Ruby Frazier; retired basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar; journalists Jelani Cobb and Anderson Cooper; Khalil Muhammad, historian and professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School; Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative; Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation; and others.
Parks described his camera as his “choice of weapons.” In a foreward for author Ralph Ellison, he wrote of how a 35mm camera might be more effective than an actual gun. As filmmaker Spike Lee says of Parks’ chosen weapon: “That was a bazooka! That wasn’t no six-shooter or rifle.”
The most expressive testimonials come from a host of relatively unknown, contemporary photographers. Devin Allen whose photograph “Baltimore Uprising” of the Freddie Gray protests was featured on a 2015 cover of Time Magazine; LaToya Ruby Frazier, who for five years followed the Flint, Michigan, water crisis and most recently photographed Breonna Taylor’s family for Vanity Fair; and Jamel Shabazz, whose photographs on the streets of New York form a visual history of the hip-hop era while simultaneously affirming marginalized communities.
Early in the film, Allen testifies: “For the first time, I understood what Gordon Parks was talking about — that the camera is a real weapon. I realized how powerful I am with a camera in my hand.” Frazier, who refers to Parks as a renaissance man, offers: “I’m not trying to replicate what he did; I think I’m just someone who is earnestly invested in adding to his legacy. That means using my work to advocate for overlooked women artists, particularly Black women not valued by society. As with Parks, the camera became Shabazz’s weapon of choice to counter incomplete narratives of the communities he captures. “With a clear vision and purpose I set out on a lifelong endeavor to use my creative gift to make images that reflected love, friendship and family, with the hope that these photographs, through exhibitions, publications and the various social media feeds, could show that honor and dignity is very prevalent in communities of color.”
For each, this means embracing the route of independent artists representative of a generation that cares about humanity while fearlessly interrogating the complexities and ugliness of America’s past and present — the Gordon Parks way.