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The Cool World film review


Directed by #ShirleyClarke

Written By #ShirleyClarke


The Cool World is a 1963 film directed and produced by Shirley Clarke, the story follows the adventures of 14-year-old Richard ‘Duke’ Custis. Duke is part of a Harlem youth gang, called the Royal Pythons, and we see how gang life affects this child’s life. Duke’s family suffer with worry for him and his gang is feuding with a rival gang, the Wolves. Duke also aims to become leader of the Royal Pythons as their current leader is an incompetent drug addict. However, the main focus is on Duke’s desperate aspiration to come into possession of a gun, which he believes will help him gain respect and safety via fear.

The film was screened as part of the BFI’s Shirley Clarke season, held to commemorate her career as a trailblazing filmmaker, and The Cool World is testament to Clarke’s genius. The screening was introduced by Shirley Clarke’s daughter, Wendy Clarke. Wendy Clarke also worked on the film and spoke about how this production was the first of its kind.

In the 60s it was fairly unusual to produce a fictional documentary-style film. The cinematography really reflects this style in its purposefully imperfect camera work, as does the fact that not a single artificial set was involved in the production; it was the first film about Harlem that was completely filmed in Harlem. Even locations like the gang’s hideout, were filmed in an apartment in Harlem. Furthermore, Wendy Clarke pointed out that majority of the children they auditioned weren’t actors but children living in the Harlem area, a lot of whom were involved in gangs. This may explain why their performances were so natural rather than grandiose, like we tend to see in some mainstream films.

All the performers were brilliant, but the standout performance came from Gloria Foster who played Duke’s disenfranchised mother. Foster was in this film for less than 10 minutes altogether so the fact that she made such an impression on me says a lot about her ability as an actress.

Music was present throughout quite a chunk of the film, and the score was one of my favourite things about this project. An array of gospel, rock n’ roll and jazz were wonderful accompaniments to the film; it really brought the buzz of 1960’s Harlem to life.

The illusion of realness that The Cool World manages to capture is commendable, from its auditioning tactics to its inclusion of recordings taken of average people going about their business on the streets of Harlem. However, The Cool World has been accused of ‘Blaxploitation’ in that it still conforms to stereotypes and fails to show any worthy role models in the Harlem community. Some would argue that Clarke was capitalising from the unfortunate circumstances of the black community in Harlem. Ironically, this film is also considered to be one of the first in the Blaxploitation genre... so there is no denying that The Cool World was pioneering in the film industry, for varying reasons.

The Cool World is included in the bestselling book: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die by Steven Jay Schneider, which was updated in 2019. Shirley Clarke clearly created something that, to this day, is hailed for its originality and revolutionary ways. Whilst this film is over 50 years old, it still has a lot to offer in its sharing of a story about those seen as unimportant. This is a film that aimed to realistically display and comment on the racial injustice that is prevalent in society and how the loss of a child’s innocence is an unfortunate by-product of this cruel world.



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