Film Review by: #BrianPenn
Shirley Clarke will barely register in many people's minds; even some film buffs would struggle to identify her work. Clarke was a highly respected independent film maker and received an Oscar nomination in 1960. The notion of indie drops Clarke perhaps unfairly, into niche territory and decidedly alternative to the mainstream. So the BFI's current retrospective of her work is long overdue. The Cool World is a remarkably stylish film capturing life in 1960s Harlem.
Shot on 35mm and newly restored, the contours are sharp and vivid adding to the story's authenticity. A mix of trained actors and street kids improvised a gritty script as the film morphed into a documentary so characteristic of Clarke's work. It was a ground breaking production and the first to be shot in Harlem itself. An excellent soundtrack composed by Mal Waldron and performed by Dizzy Gillespie (among others) gives the film additional edge.
It tells the story of Richard Custis (Hampton Clanton), an ordinary kid from the hood who drifts into crime. With a neglectful mother, father in jail and brother long gone he has no role model. Known as Duke he joins local gang the Pythons. Here he finds affiliation and acceptance as a gang member. Duke is fired up by leader Blood (Clarence Williams) who seduces the gang with tales of wealth and power. However, Blood becomes hooked on dope and Duke gradually assumes leadership of the gang. He looks to Priest (Carl Lee), a smooth talking hustler and dangerous mentor. The Pythons contemplate a stand-off with a rival gang in the park; but where will it all lead?
What's most striking is how fresh and contemporary it all looks. For a film conceived and written the best part of sixty years ago, it sits all too comfortably in modern parlance; a frightening echo of gang culture and knife crime currently stalking British cities. The parallels are obvious and carry resonance with a disaffected generation content to live and die by the gun. Here's proof that history does indeed repeat itself. Shirley Clarke had a terrific eye for detail and ever changing moods. Dramatised dialogue feeds seamlessly into library footage and the effect is a chilling reality. It was ahead of its time in the stark portrayal of how a good life can go bad. The Cool World is an understated but truly memorable movie that delivers a simple message: we are still a long, long way from home.