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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar received one of Tuesday evening’s top awards at the annual Gordon Parks Foundation Awards Dinner and Auction — founded to preserve the work of the famed African-American photographer and support up-and-coming artists — in recognition of his work as an activist and author.
While accepting the honor, the NBA Hall of Famer and The Hollywood Reporter contributing editor paid tribute to Parks, who died in 2006: “His camera wasn’t just a miracle, it was a spotlight that shone brightly on subjects that most people didn’t want to look at. He didn’t want to just report on troubling injustices, he wanted to inspire change.”
Abdul-Jabbar told THR that he actually got the chance to meet Parks in 1992, though he first took note of him after seeing the film Shaft in 1971.
“I was 24 when I sat in that theater, and as the lights went down and Isaac Hayes’ iconic theme song came on, the screen lit up with one of the first black action heroes,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “We all left the theater with a bit more pride in our posture and swagger in our step.”
Abdul-Jabbar reflected on the entirety of Parks’ career onstage, explaining that of the thousands of photographs he shot, there are two “that best express the complexities of the man as a visionary artist, as a chronicler of the African-American experience, and as a champion of humanity” — “Harlem Gang Leader, 1948” and “Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, Chicago, 1953.”
“One photo depicts street-level hopelessness. The other celebrates faith-based hopefulness,” he said. “What is remarkable about Gordon is that he was able to earnestly embrace both as equally valid points of view.”
Abdul-Jabbar’s familiarity and appreciation of Park’s work even led him to recently write an introduction to Gordon Parks: Muhammad Ali, a forthcoming book that illustrates the parallel lives of the two men.
Other honorees — Chelsea Clinton, Raf Simons and Kehinde Wiley also received the Gordon Parks Foundation Award — and guests continued praising Parks throughout the evening. Danny Glover described Parks as “quite the Renaissance man” who often “took pictures of people who had intrinsic beauty that was unspeakable and amazing.”
Event co-chair Alicia Keys, who, along with her husband Kasseem Dean, has worked with the organization closely over the years, encouraged those in attendance to act as Parks did, “without walls, without boundaries, without ceilings.”
“Most importantly, [he wanted] to bring forth the truth and challenge our thoughts and how our minds can think deeper and harder and clearer about the hard truths that are going on in the world,” Keys said. “So now more than ever we need that.”
In recognition of the 20th anniversary of Parks’ “A Great Day in Hip-Hop” — which recreated Art Kane’s 1958 “A Great Day in Harlem” by bringing together 177 hip-hop artists in front of a Harlem brownstone — the foundation restaged the famous photograph.
Many of the photo’s original participants took the stage to do so, including Questlove, Black Thought and Slick Rick.
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Taraji P. Henson