John Maggio’s “A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks” shares a title with the great photographer’s 1966 autobiography, which voiced his need for a camera that was mightier than the sword. Parks was born in 1912 as the last of 15 children on the family farm in Kansas. He went on to tell defining chapters in America’s story through the establishment pages of Life magazine, with a nuanced fidelity to Black experience.
Maggio’s documentary moves through Parks’s rich photo essays on a Harlem gang leader, the segregated South, Muhammad Ali and a boy in a Rio de Janeiro favela, as well as bold early work on Ella Watson, a janitor at the Farm Security Administration. A line is drawn from Parks’s legacy to the cultural narratives being charted by the current photographers Devin Allen and LaToya Ruby Frazier.
This helps avoid a portrayal of Park — an avuncular sage in sweater and pipe — as a stand-alone figure. He also made history as the first Black artist to produce and direct a major Hollywood film (“The Learning Tree,” from his own book), directed a pop-culture monument in “Shaft,” composed music and wrote several books. Spike Lee, Ava DuVernay and curatorial critics sound valuable but similar points about his empathy and point of view.
Perhaps no one documentary can do justice to Parks. But “Choice of Weapons” ends up streamlining his complexity, and its wind-down looks past his other audiovisual output (screening soon in a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives). Still, as Parks once said, “I consider this my world,” and we’re all still living in it.
A Choice of Weapons: Inspired by Gordon Parks
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 29 minutes. Watch on HBO Max.