Editor’s note: The following story was originally published by KCUR, Kansas City’s NPR member station, and a fellow member of the KC Media Collective. Click here to read the original story or here to sign up for KCUR’s email newsletter.
Making careful brush strokes, Warren “Stylez” Harvey uses bold shades of blue in his bright Midtown studio. He’s painting a young Gordon Parks holding a camera to his eye. The portrait is one of a series of 10, depicting filmmakers, actors and pioneers who are being inducted into the Black Movie Hall of Fame.
At 34, Harvey is a Kansas City artist to watch. His work appears in the TV drama “Bel-Air,” a reboot of the classic sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” Harvey was also one of six artists in 2020 who worked on the Black Lives Matter street mural project. At more than 300-feet, Harvey’s mural, in purple, green and yellow, made a bold statement at 63rd Street and Troost Avenue.
Harvey’s commission for the Black Movie Hall of Fame is his biggest project yet. The series includes portraits of Parks, Harry Belafonte, Kevin Willmott, Janelle Monáe, Oscar Micheaux, Tressie Souders, Chadwick Boseman, Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker and Hattie McDaniel.
Harvey said the hours he spent working have taken his art to a new level and left him with a greater respect for history.
“It’s really helping me actually see more of what’s inside me and what’s possible,” Harvey said. “But it also gives recognition to these brilliant people that really paved the way for a lot of what is today.”
The project involved research on Harvey’s part. For him, finding the right image to represent each person was key.
“Some of them are pretty far back, so it was just an awesome opportunity to learn and to bring to life to what they’ve accomplished,” Harvey said.
Of the 10 paintings, the Belafonte portrait is one of Harvey’s favorites. He says depicting the actor, in character as the gangster Seldom Seen from Robert Altman’s 1996 film “Kansas City,” was challenging to get just right.
“It’s a stained-glass type of feel with the lines, the separation of the colors, but also bringing those colors in together,” Harvey said. “The focus is on Harry Belafonte, but in the background you still get the energy of the scene, and it really brings him out. It moves him into the forefront, just because of how it’s been expressed.”
Harvey said years of painting have taught him to trust his instincts.
“Just learning my voice, being confident, you know, because sometimes it’s hard for an artist to find an authentic style,” Harvey said. “There’s so much art that you can see that can steer you in a direction of someone else’s style instead of just kind of flowing with what feels right to you. And I’m grateful that I’ve taken that journey.”
The project has opened a new chapter in his artistic career.
“These 10 years of being an artist are definitely paying off, and the sky’s the limit, really not even the sky’s the limit,” Harvey said. “I think beautiful blessings are going to come from this.”
Shawn Edwards, executive producer of Celebration of Black Cinema, unveiled the portraits Wednesday evening during a reception and movie screening at B&B Theatres Mainstreet Kansas City.
Edwards said the plan is for the portraits to hang in the The Black Movie Hall of Fame at the Boone Theater, located at 1701 E. 18th Street in the historic 18th & Vine jazz district.
Click here to learn more about The Black Movie Hall of Fame.
Harvey’s portraits give their subjects an iconic look, he said.
“They have that feel like they belong in a cathedral,” Edwards said. “There’s a very spiritual connection with each of the pieces, and it’s just great to see.”
Since the hall of fame will be located in Kansas City, Missouri, all of the initial inductees have a connection to the area. Each has made a unique contribution in the history of cinema—like Micheaux, who is buried in Great Bend, Kansas.
“If you were to build any Black Movie Hall of Fame, you have to start with one person and one person only, and that’s Oscar Micheaux, the grandfather of black filmmaking,” Edwards said. “He was the Tyler Perry of his day. He wrote, produced, directed and distributed his own movies way back in the early 1900s.”
Edwards said Harvey’s portrait of Parks, a photographer and filmmaker, captured something of the man.
“His eyes sort of pierce your soul, and you can feel him thinking cinematically,” he said. “You can almost feel his genius by looking at the portrait.”
Born in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks is perhaps best known for the photographs he made for Life Magazine. He also directed “The Learning Tree” and “Shaft.” Parks was one of the first filmmakers who advocated for other Black artists to work behind the camera on his films.
“What would Hollywood be like without Gordon Parks?” Edwards asked. “If there’s no Gordon Parks, there’s no Quentin Tarantino.”
Also included is Willmott, an Academy Award-winning director and screenwriter. Willmott, a film professor at the University of Kansas, won an Oscar in 2019 for adapting “BlacKkKlansman” along with Spike Lee.
Edwards said that, when he commissioned Harvey, he was looking for a unique way to tell a story that is often overlooked.
“I wanted to be something that would be like visually stunning, something that would make you pay attention,” Edwards said. “That’s what you want from art. You want to be stopped in your tracks. You want your eyes to open just a little wider. And then we want you to stop and think and have a conversation about it.”
Edwards said the Black Movie Hall of Fame, which is slated to open next year, is a way to honor pioneers of American cinema.
“We can’t ignore figures like Oscar Micheaux and Gordon Parks, because they went through extraordinary odds so we could take things like a Tyler Perry movie for granted,” Edwards says. “Those people should be talked about because it’s not just Black history, it’s history. What they did is important because, you know, they paved the way.”
The portraits were unveiled March 30 at B&B Theatres Mainstreet KC in The Power & Light District in conjunction with Kansas City FilmFest International, Critics Choice Awards and Boone Theater Project.
Julie Denesha is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Kansas City. Click here to read more stories from this writer.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.