Shirley Clarke’s Cool World

Shirley Clarke’s Cool World

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.”

From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore


St. Augustine's Church
290 Henry St, New York, NY 10002