The 1969 film The Learning Tree is a coming-of-age story of Newt, a young African-American boy in 1920s Kansas, and it is based on the novel by Gordon Parks (who also wrote and directed the film). I set the film to record on my DVR, when it showed on the TCM Channel, because of the film’s write-up and title. Sometimes, I tape movies that mention schools or universities, hoping there might be a scene in a library or glimpse of a librarian.
There is no actual library or librarian in this film, making this a Class V film, but the mention of a library is part of a pivotal plot point.
At 51 mins into the film, Newt walks to his girlfriend Arcella’s house after school. He learns from her mother that she isn’t home yet from school, which surprises him. He said he had to stay late at school. (And as an audience, we know that earlier, when Newt was in the principal’s office, he saw Arcella get into the car of a local white boy, a boy named Chauncey Cavanaugh who is known to be wild.)
Even though Arcella’s mother isn’t aware of what Newt saw, she looks worried. Therefore, Newt lies to her — and this is where the library comes into play.
Newt: Oh, she said something about going to the library before it closed.
Arcella’s mom: Oh, I see. Well, I’ll tell her you boys stopped by.
Arcella’s mom visibly relaxes when Newt mentions the library. Why? Because the library is code for a safe place, a place welcoming to all. So even when a library is not actually in a film, our influence can still be felt!
As Newt and his friend Jappy walk away, Jappy gives him a smirk and reveals that he knows that Newt lied about the library.
Jappy: Arcella sure enough isn’t at the library.
Newt:What’s it to you where she’s at?
Jappy: It’s ok, it’s ok, I just asked.
As they turn the corner, they run into Arcella, who’s walking slowly and clutching her books to her chest. She looks very sad and upset but won’t admit that anything’s wrong. Newt reluctantly turns to go but is still trying to protect Arcella as he tells her that he told her mother she was at the library.
Although Newt was still trying to protect Arcella by letting her know about the library excuse, that cover-up was short-lived and its protection fleeting. We find out later that Arcella is pregnant, obviously stemming back to that tragic day. It is quite a sad scene, as we had seen Arcella and Newt’s relationship slowly blossoming, cut short by these tragic circumstances.
Morals of the story? Don’t get into cars with boys, and don’t lie for others about going to the library.
- The Learning Tree. Dir. Gordon Parks. Perf. Kyle Johnson, Mira Waters, Alex Clarke. Warner Brothers/Seven Arts, 1969.