Duke, a young African-American, struggles to survive and make a name for himself in the slums of Harlem. The film opens with a close-up of a bearded, black Muslim on the street preaching hate against whites and the cruel world we live in. We then get a tour from Duke’s high school teacher, the only male Caucasian in the film, guiding his class through Fifth Avenue to the public library. The rest of the movie plays out in the ghetto, depicted with montages of real locations and real people around the city. Duke’s main motivation is to obtain a ‘piece’ (a gun), and thus become president of the ‘Royal Pythons’, the local gang that he belongs to. Once he has the weapon, Duke can wage war on their rival gang, the ‘Wolves.’ There is also a love story, which follows Duke’s seduction of the gang’s official prostitute, Luanne. He takes her to Coney Island to see the ocean, which she had no idea was just a few subway stops away. The movie culminates in gang warfare, ironically waged around a playground.
In addition to The Cool World, Shirley Clarke’s earlier The Connection (1962) and later Portrait of Jason (1967) also carry similar themes of racial prejudice, drugs, and life on the bottom rung of the inner-city ladder. Her distinct style is evident here; to capture the essence of life in the ghetto, Clarke’s camera floats around with a cinéma-vérité approach. For example, during a conversation the camera will shakily pan back and forth between subjects instead of using shot/ reverse shot. The grainy black-and-white film stock, natural lighting, and use of non-actors (with the exception of Carl Lee and Clarence Williams III) also add an authentic feel to the movie. Meandering shots of New York City cops, buses, taxis, ice cream vendors, record shops, and so forth, puts the audience in a real world that future generations can see first-hand, as though it jumped off the pages of a history book.
Occasional narration from Duke takes the audience from the streets into the psyche of our anti-hero, and much can be learnt about the mentality of ghetto life through the thoughts of this 14-year-old kid. ‘The piece is the key,’ he states, in reference to his positioning on the social ladder through acquiring a firearm. The external pressures around him skew his view of manhood, much like the characters in Larry Clark’s Kids (1995), a film undoubtedly inspired by Shirley Clarke’s work. However, in The Cool World the emphasis is placed on violence rather than sex, although both are present. Frederick Wiseman, the film’s producer, was an advocate of independent cinema. He wanted to make something that would be more socially conscious than Hollywood product. By combining elements of narrative and documentary, the artists behind The Cool World succeed at creating a piece of cinema that will remain significant for generations.
Studio/Distributor: Wiseman Film Productions, Cinema V
Director: Shirley Clarke
Producer: Frederick Wiseman
Screenwriters: Shirley Clarke, Carl Lee
Cinematographer: Baird Bryant, Composer: Mal Waldron
Art Director: Roger Furman, Editor: Shirley Clarke
Duration: 105 minutes
Cast: Hampton Clanton, Carl Lee, Clarence Williams III
Directory of World Cinema: American Independent, Edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, Bristol, UK / Chicago, USA.