Although Gordon Parks is celebrated and examined for his work in literature, photography, music, and film, critics have ignored his collaboration with Nuyorican writer Piri Thomas. The 1968 made-for-television documentary The World of Piri Thomas, directed by Parks, revisits Thomas’s bestselling memoir, Down These Mean Streets, originally published in 1967. The documentary, a countercultural portrait, not only performs sections of Thomas’s groundbreaking book but also analyzes the interrelationship between economic classes, ethnic and racial split-ups, and environmental and moral decay in Harlem during the 1960s. This essay examines the documentary’s denunciation of poverty and systemic abandonment to argue that Parks utilizes disjointed audiovisual montages and sound collages as a metaphor of neighborhood disintegration, while Thomas relies on sociopoetic ruminations and performativity to dissect his crime-ridden youth on screen.
By the late 1960s, Piri Thomas had won literary notoriety for Down These Mean Streets. Born John Peter Thomas in 1928 to Cuban and Puerto Rican parents in Harlem, he was raised in extreme poverty, but when he was a teenager, his family became more prosperous and moved to Long Island. These two locations marked his upbringing: while Harlem made him conscious and proud of the rich culture, struggles, and intersections between the Puerto Rican and African American communities, Long Island made him aware of racial status and divides within the United States. After rejecting segregation and racial harassment on Long Island, Thomas left his family and returned to Harlem, where he began to use drugs and got involved in gang life and petty crime. He nearly killed a police officer during a nightclub robbery and, as a result, spent seven years in prison during the 1950s. His period in jail was one of deep reflection, identity searching, and spiritual awakenings. After his release, Thomas began to work in a church group that supported youth in Harlem. And although he eventually distanced himself from organized religion, he continued to work as an activist, writer, spoken-word poet, and educator in impoverished communities and prisons. In raw and vivid Harlem dialects, his memoir recounts his youth, his time in jail, his reflections on race relationships, and his eventual commitment to a socially responsible life.1 Still in print and studied in high schools and universities, Down These Mean Streets is a staple of Puerto Rican and Latino literature in the United States. Certainly, Thomas’s life experiences and book represented perfect material for the then-emerging documentarian Gordon Parks.
Parks began taking photographs professionally in 1941 while working with the Farm Security Administration, a government department that at the time was doing a visual chronicle of US social conditions. Starting with the south side of Chicago, and then covering the whole country, Parks focused on the marginalization and ills produced by racism and segregation. Although the Farm Security Administration closed in 1943, as a freelance photographer Parks continued documenting the lives of black people and the poor. He created visual reportages of abjection while also showcasing the dignity of his subjects. In 1948 a photo essay on the Harlem gangs opened the door to Life magazine, and Parks became its first black photojournalist. As the Gordon Parks Foundation website describes,
Parks would remain at Life for two decades chronicling subjects related to racism and poverty . . . His most famous images capture the essence of activism and humanitarianism in mid-twentieth century United States. They also rallied support for the Civil Rights Movement, for which Parks himself was a tireless advocate as well as a documentarian.2
By referencing elements of his bio, I am looking to contextualize Parks’s early documentaries during the 1960s, made for National Educational Television (NET), a public broadcasting television network that operated from 1954 to 1970. Flavio (1963) and Diary of a Harlem Family (1968) were projects that emerged from Parks’s Life magazine photo essays. By combining still and moving images, Parks tried to manifest the precariousness of lives at the margins and to offer access to Rio de Janeiro and New York City slums with the hope of promoting empathy and change. Perhaps Parks’s introduction to Diary of a Harlem Family can be read as a manifesto of the documentary trilogy that finished with The World of Piri Thomas. Looking at the camera, Parks says in Diary,
This is the story of a black man . . . and this is his Harlem apartment. What he was, what he is, and what you force him to be is what you are. For he is you, staring back from a mirror of poverty and despair, of revolt and freedom. Look at him and know that to destroy him is to destroy yourself.3
Through a critical reflection on the audience’s gaze and an appeal to the ethics of documentary, in the trilogy Parks holds the audience responsible for what he is going to show. He underscores how these stories are not unique. They are not disconnected from economic inequality and the racial and ethnic prejudices prevalent in society. He tries to convey that the viewer should not consume these narratives of poverty and desperation passively but instead change the social factors that are producing them. Similarly, instead of creating a portrait of social climbing or celebrity authorship, The World of Piri Thomas uses Down These Mean Streets to address how Puerto Ricans suffered the same circumstances of governmental neglect and geographical obliteration as African Americans. Both Parks and Thomas share a determinist view of the United States. To them, the environment in the form of a racialized class structure creates urban divisions and poverty traps that exist beyond the control of black and brown people.
The World of Piri Thomas is formulated as a collaborative audio-visual poetic work in which Parks and Thomas dissect life in East Harlem. As a subject, the poet stands for those who “survive in and triumph over that ghetto.”4 Through the writer, Parks presents the intimate life of Puerto Ricans in their crumbling apartments and garbage-filled streets and uses montages to interconnect social segregation, cultural self-determination, and white corporate hegemony in the city. Many of these layered scenes have Thomas’s spoken-word poems as voiceovers. The conjunction of poems and images creates a new cinematic text that enhances meaning.
For instance, when Parks places his camera into the tenements and apartments, he concentrates on the collapsing infrastructure and the tight, overcrowded rooms with children. The jump-cuts from one space to the other underscore the words of the poems. Thomas’s voiceover rhetorically asks the viewers, those privileged enough at the time to have access to TV, if they have ever experienced not having a “thang”—no money to pay the rent, power, heat, or gas. Did they have children to feed and no food? Did their souls beat time “to never-ending resentments”? (8:14). The conditions of the apartments are dreadful, and even when empty they transmit visually the economic and spiritual despair Thomas is talking about. The images want to shock the audience by offering a glimpse of extreme poverty and lack of opportunities. This last aspect is amplified at times by short interviews with Puerto Ricans surviving with the bare minimum (see 6:28–11:55).
Expanding on the montage technique, Parks and his editor, Michael Misch, use throughout the film a quick set of moving images that last three to four seconds each. Together these form a conceptual composition. In one, Parks shows the Puerto Rican community and their daily interactions. The camera captures small businesses and a busy street: children playing in demolished buildings and cars, cockfights, domino games, a piragüero, a father hitting his child, a mother feeding a baby, the youth joking around, old people in contemplation, a stray dog, a man arrested, men drinking or doing intravenous drugs. This segment is accompanied by a unifying percussive rhythm made by a man hitting a trashcan. The drumming and the fast editing convey the sense that the Puerto Rican people lead a vibrant but run-down life in New York (see 2:02–4:52).
In another similar montage, Parks moves his camera along with Thomas to midtown Manhattan and the Upper East Side, neighborhoods that are predominantly white and corporate. While the filmmaking method is the same, the results are different. The viewer sees a world full of “pros”—a bunch of “killer dealers,” in the words of the poet (5:58). Thomas reflects in the voiceover that this world teaches evil and a sense of violence. The camera shows high-rise apartments and offices, men in suits and women in luxury clothes. Although the streets are packed, they are clean and well kept and people stroll relaxed and entitled. Thomas’s voiceover asks if they are willing to learn about him and what makes him click, then he proceeds to tell visceral anecdotes from el barrio about sexual desire and violence to show the disconnection between the two worlds. The poet presents himself as an interloper in an indifferent rich world that does not accept him and would never hold a place for him (see 5:53–7:24).
In a darker montage, Parks follows a teen walking alone late at night through the streets of Harlem. Thomas’s narration describes when, as a twelve-year-old, he escaped his home out of desperation. He tries to put a finger on the overwhelming sensation of silence late at night. Meanwhile, the point-of-view shots of the dark empty streets and closed stores transition to red transit lights, increasingly out-of-focus. The distorted lights indicate a paranoid state and the imminence of aggression. The lights dim as shadows creep inside an apartment, and the sound mix lets the screams of an abused woman dominate. Although the audience does not get to see clearly what is happening, the sequence implies damaging gender roles, domestic violence, and extreme Puerto Rican machismo—all relevant topics in Thomas’s memoir (see 12:48–15:33).
If Parks uses a disjointed montage to show, by an accumulation of images, the differences between neighborhoods and the racialized borders in the city, Thomas uses the documentary as a platform to recreate his own life in front of an audience. The film is a complementary piece to his memoir. In a self-reflective mode, Thomas performs its narrative arc. Addressing the audience, he explores the interposed aspects of his identity. At times he does so directly from the intimate setting of his home, while other times he takes on a role in Parks’s fragmented sequences.
The film opens with Thomas illustrating an excerpt of the Down These Mean Streets prologue. “Majesty Piri Thomas” surveys his kingdom, Harlem, from a rooftop (0:10). He describes himself as an intense black “Porty-Ree-Can—unsatisfied, hoping and always reaching” against the backdrop of an orange cityscape (1:16).5 Thomas extends his arms in a repeating gesture that underscores the desire to take advantage of the denied possibilities of the city. The shot ends with a police siren drowning his voice. The siren signifies urban noise but also foregrounds persecution and confinement. Several minutes into the film, Thomas talks from his apartment to introduce himself: “I am a poet. I am an ex-con. I am a painter, an ex-drug addict. I am an ex-gang leader. I am a writer. I am a human being” (1:48). Thomas talks from the then present, 1968, when he was still, as he declares in the afterword of the thirtieth-anniversary edition of his memoir, in the “soul searing experience” of forcing himself to go “back into time to see the sees, do the dos, hear the hears, and feel the feelings over and over and over again, at times feeling certain past traumatic experiences seven times stronger.”6 Hence, the film is an augmentation through cinematic and performance techniques of the experiences narrated in the still fresh book. In the documentary, Thomas embodies the different routes taken by Puerto Ricans under dire circumstances: crime, misguided leadership, escapism, and revitalization through art.
In one of the most revealing scenes, Thomas analyzes how the environment of East Harlem leads to the wasting of time and lives. “Junk”—heroin—is portrayed by Thomas and Parks as one of the most destructive substances affecting Puerto Ricans. In a crude scene, Parks films addicts shooting “rat poison,” as Thomas calls it (32:06). The audience sees in detail the process of preparing a fix through a droning music score that marks the enslavement to the drug and its rituals. Parks and Thomas follow this sequence with another dramatization: with a fisheye lens and a low-angle shot, Parks observes from a corner as the poet performs a nightmarish cold turkey. Thomas twists, shakes, and sweats in his bed as he affirms that the withdrawal syndrome destroys any possibility of self-control (see 30:59–37:13).
In another sequence, Thomas keeps reflecting on the desire to escape poverty, the ever-present racial tension, and marginalization: “Where do you go to get rid of this pain?” he asks (20:09). He connects the notion and the wish of speeding away to gun violence and the self-harming dynamics of firearms. Owning a gun has a ripple effect, he argues. Thomas compares warfare to street annihilation. He performs a symbolic reenactment of the nightclub shooting that led to his being jailed. He stages the scene in the back of a building. In slow motion, Thomas stumbles as a bullet penetrates him. With reverb and echo effects, he declares, “I have a bullet through me and at that same instant, at the very same instant the bridge between the boy and the young man became one brotherhood. I was here. I was shot and soon I would be in a prison” (20:58). Thomas reproduces the turning point of his life (and his book), the event that served as a transition from a life of crime and drug-induced head-trips to jail, maturity, and change.
By working through their audiovisual performance together, Parks and Thomas challenge the separation between documentarian and subject. Thomas takes charge of his own representation through acting, interviews, readings, and voiceovers. Parks facilitates the supplemental images and the construction of montage sequences based on Thomas’s texts and meditations. Parks avoid issues of voyeurism, appropriation, or plain exploitation, all very common in the documentary genre. He offers his filmic platform to Thomas for a self-reconstruction. Thomas, for his part, sees his experiences from the perspective of the Puerto Rican and African American communities. This social aspect is key to understanding the connection he traces between his personal journey and the ones endured by his people. The documentary is also simultaneously a portrait of Harlem. As the title suggests, the social environment beyond Thomas becomes the real protagonist. As an urban space, Harlem is seen as a tumor produced by the racist policies of US capitalism. The vision presented by Parks and Thomas is unapologetic and painful. Perhaps this is the core link between the two artists: they believed that in showing Harlem’s social illnesses, they were fighting ignorance and media invisibility. They understood that representation is the first step toward social reform. In the 1990s, while writing an afterword, Thomas questioned the success of this approach when thinking about the hike in marginalization over time: “Unfortunately, it’s the same old Mean Streets, only worse,” he wrote. Interestingly, he does not back down; he even proposes to be more radical in the evocation to remove the blindfold of Lady Justice: “So for the first time she can really see what’s happening and check out where the truth lies and the lies hide.”7
Although the situation they critique is appalling, Parks and Thomas leave space for the cultural and spiritual joy of Puerto Ricans and blacks by showing children’s artwork and people of the community playing music and dancing. They trusted, the film firmly suggests, that through arts, education, and honest social healing, new generations could affirm an active presence in society, maintain fruitful links with the home country, and achieve dignity and self-respect.
Rojo Robles is a Puerto Rican writer, playwright, and filmmaker. Since 2004 he has directed El Bibutz del Deseo, an independent company dedicated to producing plays and films and publishing fiction. Robles graduated from the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, with a BA in theater and an MA in comparative literature. He holds a PhD from the Latin American, Iberian, and Latino Cultures Department at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Robles teaches Caribbean and Latino literature at Brooklyn College.
1. See Devon McCurdy, “Piri Thomas (1928–2011),” BlackPast.org, www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/thomas-piri-1928/.
2. The Gordon Parks Foundation, “Biography,” gordonparksfoundation.org (accessed 10 June 2019).
3. Diary of a Harlem Family, dir. Gordon Parks (PBL, 1968); see vimeo.com/201962649 (4:02–17).
4. Gordon Parks, The World of Piri Thomas, dir. Gordon Parks, NET Journal, episode 175, 18 November 1968, 4:38; see American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH, Boston, and the Library of Congress, Washington, DC), americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_75-19s1rrr1. Time codes hereafter cited in the text.
5. Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets, 30th anniversary ed. (New York: Vintage, 1997), x.
6. Ibid., 333.
7. Ibid., 337.