seen on TV @ TCM
The Learning Tree was the first studio movie from a black director, Gordon Parks Sr., and it's not bad. It's kinda treacly in places, and the acting is what I would call earnest - meaning it feels like the actors, especially the two young male leads, are trying very hard to act instead of just be - but at the same time the film comes across as quite sincere and authentic as well. What I wanna talk about is the climax, which presented a fascinating moral dilemma, so, spoilers for an over-40-year-old-movie to follow...
The story parallels the lives of two teen boys, rivals, coming of age in rural Kansas during the 1920s: Newt, the good one, and Marcus, the bad one - and it really is as simple and unambiguous as that. A whole lot of other stuff happens in the movie, but in the third act (more or less), Newt surreptitiously witnesses a murder committed by Marcus' father towards a white man. A different white man is blamed for it, though, and in the subsequent trial, he is shown to have both motive and opportunity. If Newt keeps quiet about what he knows, an innocent man will go to the gallows, but if he speaks up, racial tensions are sure to explode within the small town, and the black community is sure to suffer as a result.
Newt chooses to testify. He fingers Marcus' father in the courtroom, who desperately grabs a guard's gun, runs out of the room and kills himself rather than face the retribution of the white townspeople. It takes an impassioned speech by the judge to stay the white crowd's wrath. Upon hearing the news, Marcus, who didn't like Newt much to begin with, catches him alone and tries to shoot him, but is shot dead himself by the town sheriff, and that's how the movie ends.
And so the question must be asked: did Newt do the right thing? First, if it weren't already obvious, racial prejudice is a fact of life here. While Newt and his family have good relations with some whites, we do see him and other blacks in the story subjected to bigotry by the white locals. For example, we see Newt get into an argument with his schoolteacher, who scoffs when he says that he wants to go to college. She insists it's a waste of time and money for black students, and he responds by saying he and all the other black kids hate her. So it's made crystal clear how Newt feels about living in a bigoted environment.
Newt is constantly bullied by Marcus. The two don't get along at all. Marcus' father has a reputation as being something less of an upright citizen. If Newt doesn't confess, his crime would go unpunished and he would likely continue on his irresponsible ways. Letting a blameless white man hang probably would not change race relations in town, and given how the blacks have been historically treated by the whites, if the blacks knew the truth, it's easy to imagine many of them condoning the act.
Tree is a work of fiction inspired by Parks' childhood. It was released in 1969, a year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and four years after the same fate befell Malcolm X. Civil rights remained a hot-button topic without a solution in sight. Parks was friends with Malcolm, and was a godfather to his second daughter. Given that, I have to admit it kind of surprised me at first that he chose the climax he did to this story, inspired by childhood memories or no, because when you get down to it, the fate of the black main character is decided by white authority figures. Twice.
Granted, Newt is just a young and deeply impressionable kid, raised by devout Christians (his mother implores him in one scene to always be truthful) and probably couldn't be expected to do anything other than tell the truth, but the fact remains that once he does, he and his family have to hope like hell that his testimony doesn't lead to a race riot. Indeed, it almost does happen in the courtroom itself, but again, it took a white authority figure, the judge, to prevent that from happening. And it took a second white authority figure, the sheriff, to save Newt's life in the end when Marcus seeks revenge.
I wish there were a way in which Marcus' father could have been, perhaps, blackmailed into leaving town with Marcus in exchange for Newt's silence. Newt's father could've negotiated that. And as for the falsely-accused white man, well, I realize how this will sound, but how many blacks throughout history have been falsely accused of a crime by whites and made to suffer for it? But then, living with the knowledge that he let an innocent man die is perhaps too great a burden to place on a fifteen-year-old boy. Perhaps Tree ends the only way it could end.