New HBO Gordon Parks Documentary: An Intimate Snapshot of History

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“A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” weaves the life of legendary photojournalist, author and filmmaker Gordon Parks with the stories of those he inspired. The documentary, from Emmy Award-Winning Director John Maggio, dropped on HBO Max last Monday.

Gordon Parks seized the lens of history. From the 1940’s onward, Parks captured now-iconic images showing the realities of segregation in vivid color and the brutal conditions of Rio de Janeiro’s slums.

The documentary portrays the story of the first Black photographer at LIFE magazine as one of constant travel between worlds. The film’s gritty, ambient score supports this image of a man who is always on high alert, prepared to capture history’s fleeting moments.

Parks photographed a wide range of subjects from the fashions of socialites to the activities of a Harlem gang leader. He was nimble and multi-talented, transitioning seamlessly from beloved photojournalist to genre-jumping author to pioneering filmmaker. The documentary sports an impressive lineup of stars who speak on Parks’ impact, from “Selma” director Ava DuVernay and basketball superstar Kareem Abdul Jabbar to “Do the Right Thing” director Spike Lee and CNN anchor Anderson Cooper.

https://youtu.be/QN2KlMbtdfw

Though, the film is at its most personal when spotlighting the work of three modern-day photographers who, in keeping with Parks’ legacy, took up their cameras as weapons against institutional racism. LaToya Ruby Frazier captures with unflinching honesty the lives of a family in the midst of the Flint water crisis. Devin Allen’s work graces the cover of Time magazine with his stunning photo of the 2015 Freddie Gray protests, and Jamel Shabazz empowers as a New York street photographer.

“When I’m shooting images of people, I will see a Gordon Parks image, and I’ll know that I’m making that portrait that’s in conversation with all of that legacy,” said Frazier in the documentary.

By intertwining Parks’ work with that of his successors, the film makes a strong case that capturing the timely creates work that is timeless.

From Muhammad Ali to Malcolm X, Parks possessed the unique ability to make all of his subjects drop their defenses and reveal their true selves. The result is a body of work that shows the shared humanity of people across all walks of life and portrays the often-gruesome realities of America and the larger world with striking intimacy.

“A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” is an engrossing introduction to the work of a legend, whose mark is indelibly printed in the minds of viewers and the pages of LIFE.

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