David Parks, son of Gordon Parks, talks film and literature at WSU


Austin Shaw

David Parks, son of Gordon Parks, talks about his inspiration for his movies. He also talks about what it is like to be the son of Gordon Parks.

Marking the 50th anniversary of Gordon Parks’ film “The Learning Tree,” Gordon’s son David Parks visited Wichita State Thursday to speak about his experiences in film and literature.  

David Parks was born in Minneapolis but moved to New York City, where he lived throughout his life. He first attended Storm King School and later Ricker College before joining the United States Army.

During his two-year campaign with the Army in Vietnam, Parks served eight months in combat and was wounded twice — earning two Purple Heart awards. 

“I learned about fear, and I learned how to overcome it,” Parks said of his time in the military.

Parks said he left the military after being accepted to study film and photo illustration at the Rochester Institute of Technology. During this time, he was unable to work with his father Gordon on the 1969 release of “The Learning Tree” film, which is a semi-autobiographical story based on a novel by the same name.

Given his father’s reputation, Parks said it was difficult to decide his own path as an artist. 

“I was born at the top,” he said. “All I had to do was maintain, and try to figure out what to do, because everybody expects you to know because you are the son of Gordon Parks.”

Parks also spoke about his own history in film, including promoting and producing films like “Superfly” and “Leadbelly,” sharing insight based on his years of filming experience.

He summarized his experience with film in one piece of advice.

“The idea of what you are doing, is it relevant, is it timely?” Parks said. “Use the idea as a foundation, then to write the story.”

Parks said he is currently working on a documentary about Dora Robert, a woman who discovered oil in her backyard while drilling for a well. Parks said he is also working on three films: “Buffalo Soldiers,” “Henry Flipper,” and “GI Diary.”

Gordon Parks was a famous photographer, writer, and director, born in Fort Scott, Kansas. His work in photography began in the 1940s when he began documenting the social conditions of Black Americans for the Farm Security Administration. 

Parks later worked in film and created several films credited for the blaxpoitation genre, including the legendary “Shaft” series.  

Wichita State University’s Ulrich Museum of Art has one of the largest collections of Gordon Parks’ photos in the world. Works in the collection include “Department Store” and “Muhammad Ali On Staircase.”