Hampton Clanton grew up in the projects, though Clanton himself was nothing like the character he portrayed as a gang member in Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (his parents raised seven kids who went to church every Sunday and stayed out of trouble); he has since appeared in dozens of films, as Rony Clanton.
Wendy Clarke, who helped her mother through all the stages of the production, recalled that it was the first feature film shot in Harlem using inexperienced actors and ordinary people. “Over two thousand folks auditioned for The Cool World, and I got the role,” said Hampton Clanton, who was cast as the lead—Duke, a fifteen-year-old gang member. “I never acted before, so there was a lot of things I never did, like look at a script.” He grew up in the projects, though Clanton himself was nothing like the character he portrayed. His parents raised seven kids who went to church every Sunday and stayed out of trouble. “But I grew up on the Lower East Side, where all of that was around me,” he said. “The gangs were prevalent, man.” Clanton had been employed as a summer youth worker at St. Augustine’s Church when Carl Lee came by scouting for young actors and encouraged him to audition. When Clarke asked the aspiring actors to improvise a gang scene during auditions, everybody was quiet until Hampton shouted from the back, “Get that motherfucker!” They all started fighting, and she said, “Bring that kid over here.” Clarke and Lee sat Clanton down and gave him a script, which he had difficulty reading because he had never seen one before—though that didn’t stop the fourteen-year-old from landing the role (he has since appeared in dozens of films, as Rony Clanton). Over a half century later, Clanton vividly remembers the production. “Shirley was very focused, very creative,” he said. “We’re talking about 1962, right? Because of Shirley, I was one of the first cats that walked around with an Afro back then, in 1962, because of working on this movie. Duke was one of the first cats who was wearing it natural, which was the way Shirley wanted it. That’s how innovative this film was.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World, released in 1963, was also shot using handheld cameras and high-contrast film stock in a cinema verité style. It was based on Warren Miller’s best-selling novel about Harlem teens and was shot on location with nonprofessional actors, further giving the film a gritty realism. “It was Carl who gave her the entry into this world,” Dundy recalled, “where he was a man of substance, a respected presence in the cool black underworld. Without his endorsement of her, Shirley would not have had access to record it so intimately.” The Cool World begins with speech by a black nationalist street preacher in Harlem and then follows youths over the course of a day—intimately portraying blackness in ways that Hollywood still has not caught up with. In contrast to mainstream films about blacks that were narrated from a white perspective, such as To Kill a Mockingbird, it was presented entirely from an African American point of view. “Shirley was a genius,” observed Hampton Clanton, who played the lead role of Duke, a fifteen-year-old gang member (he was cast after Shirley Clarke’s longtime partner Carl Lee discovered him at St. Augustine’s Church). “She worked hard, man.” Clarke not only broke new narrative ground, she pioneered a new visual style by having cinematographer Baird Bryant carry a bulky 35-mm camera during the whole shoot. “That was unheard-of at that time,” Clanton said. “Shirley took a clothesline and dollied the camera, going back and forth. When I look back at her creative genius as a filmmaker, I’m amazed.”