The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films presents Leadbelly.
In his final theatrical film, celebrated director Gordon Parks cast Roger E. Mosley as the iconic blues and folk singer Huddie Ledbetter, better known to music history as Lead Belly, the King of the 12-String Guitar. Dramatizing the musician’s turbulent life from his early 20s to his mid-40s, Leadbelly follows Huddie as he performs at bars and sukey jumps, learns the blues from “Blind Lemon” Jefferson, faces violent racism and its deadly consequences, and twice finds himself incarcerated, labouring on back-breaking chain gangs and performing at the behest of white authorities. Combining pastoral simplicity with the resilient and rebellious spirit of the 1970s, all to the sounds of Lead Belly’s iconic songs, Leadbelly offers a vibrant and harrowing portrait of the segregated Jim Crow South and stood as the film Parks most admired amongst his own filmography.
- New 4K digital restoration, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interview with filmmaker Spike Lee and music historians Kip Lornell and Charles Wolfe
- March of Time newsreel on Lead Belly
- Three Songs by Leadbelly, Blanding Shaw and Wah Mong Chang’s 1945 footage edited together two decades later by folk singer Pete Seeger
- Legend of Lead Belly, Alan Ravenscroft 52-minute documentary on the folk singer
- Selected performances from A Vision Shared: A Tribute to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly
- Archival interview with folklorist Alan Lomax
- Theatrical trailer
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: A new essay by scholar L. Roi Boyd III and novelist Richard Wright’s 1937 tribute to Lead Belly written for the Daily Worker
(Note: This post distinguishes between the film and the musician by using the preferred two-word spelling of the artist’s name to indicate the person (“Lead Belly”) while using the actual single-word spelling of the movie’s title to refer to the film (“Leadbelly“).
Gordon Parks’s first feature film, The Learning Tree (1969), stands in notable contrast to his second film, Shaft (1971). His debut is rural, pensive, and typified by a young man’s hard-earned maturation. His sophomore effort is urban, funky, and raucously street smart. Those looking for a bridge between these two poles might find it in Parks’s final theatrical release, Leadbelly (1976). Here, Parks further mythologies the formative years of Huddie Ledbetter that would eventually create the musical icon called Leadbelly, the so-called “King of the 12-String Guitar” and who was made all-the-more notorious for having been convicted and jailed for murder. In his film, Parks takes the imagery of pastoral endurance associated with black survival in the hostile American South and meets it with a more urban-styled hero who values professionalism, violence, and rebellion over land and family. The filmmaker also specially emphasizes in Leadbelly the place of creativity as a means to dignity and self-achievement. Parks, who himself had his first job as a brothel’s teenaged piano player, greatly admired Lead Belly – “He proved that in spite of hardship, you can do your art.” – and despite the film’s limited budget, its lack of studio support, and its eventual box office failure, Parks considered it his “strongest and most ambitious film.”
Leadbelly opens with a muscular Huddie Ledbetter (Roger E. Mosley, four years before his role as helicopter pilot “T.C.” on the hit TV series Magnum P.I.) swinging a sledgehammer while incarcerated at Angola Prison during the 1930s. Huddie, drenched in the ochre-coloured light that makes him look practically Promethean, evokes thoughts of John Henry and his boundless strength. A visit by famed folklorist John Lomax grants him a reprieve from breaking rocks and he is recorded by the musicologist singing and playing, transporting Ledbetter to his past and shifting the film’s diegesis into a flashback survey of the man’s life thus far. Parks attends to these formative years between 1908 and 1934 that made the man and the legend. The film portrays Ledbetter’s flight as a young man from Caddo Parish, Louisiana, escaping a shotgun wedding and some unwanted police attention after pulling a gun on a romantic rival. From there, Leadbelly surveys Huddie’s time as a brothel’s musician on Shreveport’s Fannin’ Street, his partnership with Blind Lemon Jefferson, and his escape from jail after fighting with a white confederate at a gig. Ledbetter assumes the name “Walter Boyd” and leads a content domestic life until he shoots and kills a man in a late night argument, landing him in prison in Sugar Land, Texas. After a failed escape attempt, Lead Belly sings for his pardon from Governor Pat Neff and eventually secures his release. He returns to Fannin’ Street to see its decline and is later attacked by a group of white farmers who slash Huddie’s throat. The musician defends himself, killing one of the men, but is thrown back in prison, this time at Angola where he will eventually be visited by Lomax.
Gordon Parks’s intentions for Leadbelly are described as much by what he leaves out and what he changes than by what the film accurately reconstructs. Leadbelly concludes with Huddie comparing Lomax and his recording work for the Library of Congress to pinning butterflies and he rejects consigning his songs to such a fate. It’s a declaration that is out of keeping with what actually followed for Lead Belly – a lengthy collaboration between Lomax and Lead Belly touring Southern prisons and logging camps recording scores of songs by Huddie and others, a period in New York City performing at shows organized by Lomax for scholars and middle class whites, their eventual falling out and subsequent legal battles, Lead Belly’s adoption by the rising worker’s movement, and Lead Belly’s productive relationship with Lomax’s son Alan and his appearances on Alan’s radio programs. In his later years, Lead Belly was considered a calm and gentle person, one almost unreconcilable to the murdering songster of legend. While Ledbetter was known to generally avoid white folks in his younger days where able, Parks purposefully rewrites his titular figure as a locus of resistance against white dominance. Whether crushing a cigar offered by Governor Neff or fighting with white party-goers who demand that the musician continue playing beyond their contracted agreement, Parks’s Lead Belly stands against white oppression and bigotry in a manner expected by urban audiences in 1970s America but unlike that of the historical man – “There were still some things I knew black people wouldn’t go for today.” The amendment of Lead Belly encourages a kind of repatriation of Lead Belly’s music to the urban black audiences who responded coolly to it in the 193s0s as a Southern anachronism.
Parks’s recalibration of Lead Belly as a figure of black heroism in turn makes the film notably diverge from the generic expectations of the artist bio-pic. Conventionally, artistic genius in the bio-pic is as much a burden as a blessing. Self-destructive impulses are obligatory to genre and they must be balanced (not quelled) by the artist balance to preserve their creative insight. Huddie Ledbetter was certainly not without flaws in his character. He was prone to frequent womanizing and brutal violence in his younger days, however Parks does not portray Lead Belly’s conflicts as the typically internal struggle to artist bio-pic. Leadbelly prefers to consider Huddie’s arc as more of a coming-of-age in the American South and instead positions the challenges to Lead Belly’s artistic genius as those raised externally by the Jim Crow South. Re-writing the genre to account for Parks’s radicalized awareness, it is the white confederates, prison guards, lawmakers, and lynch-ready farmers who stand in opposition to Huddie’s life, art, and well-being, not his philandering or his tempter. Ledbetter’s violence will at least afford him some modicum of self-preservation in this threatening world, while it is his music that provides his dignity and achievement.
Leadbelly was intended by Parks to speak to black audiences but still include white movie-goers. While recognizing the need for heroes to black Americans, Parks saw his story as “a human drama that will appeal to all audiences.” He avoided casting bankable stars like Richard Roundtree, preferring Mosley in his most prominent film role and recording San Francisco blues singer Hi-Tide Harris for Lead Belly’s singing voice. The film’s production was based out of Austin, Texas, and was shot in the rolling hills and pine woods to the east. This film was underfunded and the shooting schedule was briefer than Parks would have liked, but the biggest blow came at the the tie of Leadbelly’s release when Paramount leadership had shifted from Frank Yablans to Barry Diller. Diller withdrew support to around a half dozen of Yablans’ projects and this included Leadbelly. The studio marketed Parks’s ambitious art film as a sex-and-violence Blaxploitation picture with poster which featured a shirtless Lead Belly holding a guitar in one hand, a sledge in the other, and a scantily clad woman at his feet. Leadbelly’s quiet openings in Detroit, Boston, and Atlanta was still successful despite the studio’s deficient support, outgrossing every other film except One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest within a week. Still, Paramount elected hold Leadbelly back from New York City and despite supportive reviews in Variety and by the Los Angeles Times and standing ovations at the U.S.A. Film Festival in Dallas and the Philadelphia Film Festival, the film was a commercial failure, lasting less than two weeks at most venues.
Leadbelly has always deserved better and with the Criterion Collection having issued releases of Gordon Parks’s The Learning Tree and Shaft, this bio-pic is the natural next step in the label’s hard media consideration of the director’s filmography. Who are any of us to disagree with Parks’s own appraisal of Leadbelly as his best film. There is certainly plenty of content available of the musician to support a release. With Parks noted disdain for the art used to promote the film and the Criterion Collection having go a different route with its cover art for Charles Burnett’s To Sleep with Anger, MMC! can take this opportunity to once again promote the idea of tapping LA-based artist Kadir Nelson for a cover treatment. Once again, Nelson’s interest in African-American culture and history perfectly intersects with this subject matter, particularly given his interest in African American music and popular culture.
Credits: All of the special features included in this imagined edition actually exist, save for the discussion between Spike Lee and Lead Belly’s biographers. L. Roi Boyd III was chosen to provide a booklet essay given his article “Leadbelly: Thirty Years Later: Exploring Gordon Parks as Auteur through the Leadbelly Lens” and Boyd’s abiding interest in popular music, scholarship, and the African American experience.
Charles Wolfe and Kip Lornell’s The Life and Legend of Leadbelly is essential reading for anyone looking for a deep-dive into the performer’s life and Maurice L. Bryan’s thesis paper “The Power of Images: The Confrontation of Violence and the Construction of Black Manhood in the Films of Gordon Parks” provided a thoughtful synthesis on the scholarship surrounding Gordon Parks and the film and provides a valuable assessment of his own on Leadbelly.
I’d be surprised if Criterion doesn’t put this one out as they have done Shaft and The Learning Tree on Blu Ray and 4K, and they have his self documentary Moments Without Proper Names on their streaming service.