BY Carlos Valladares in Opinion | 24 APR 24
Featured in
Issue 243

Revisiting Shirley Clarke’s Forgotten Harlem Classic

The director’s 1963 film, ‘The Cool World’, is a unique misstep in her lauded career

BY Carlos Valladares in Opinion | 24 APR 24

This piece appears in the columns section of frieze 243, ‘Behind the Scenes

On a street in Harlem, New York, in 1963, a Black child runs back and forth. We hear Dizzy Gillespie’s swift trumpet runs. We also hear teenager Duke Custis (Rony Clanton) singing the praises of owning a gun: ‘You get yourself a piece, everything opens up for you.’ He wants to get a gun to become the feared leader of the Royal Pythons gang. The child’s ball rolls down the street. Dizzy plays fast and faster. Duke picks up the ball. He tosses it back and the kid keeps running. Duke looks up at a street sign he has seen, sees and will always see: ‘West 120th Street’.

It’s 1970. In a London flat full of artists, sitting between Jacques Rivette and Yoko Ono, American filmmaker Shirley Clarke is being interviewed for French television. She’s the white director of the aforementioned film, The Cool World (1963). Clarke says she is afraid of being seen as superficial. She does not want to deal with ‘broad clichés’ in her work. ‘In order to avoid this, I tend to look obliquely.’

Shirley Clarke, The Cool World, 1963, film still. Courtesy: Zipporah Films, Inc.

Yet, her adaptation of Warren Miller’s 1959 novel – then-attorney Frederick Wiseman’s first film production – doesn’t paint the full picture. On the one hand, it aims to present a kind of urban life ‘as it really is’, and as never previously seen by American movie audiences. For, while James Agee, Helen Levitt and Janice Loeb had been In the Street in 1948, and Lionel Rogosin was On the Bowery in 1956, The Cool World looked to shine light upon a different variety of New York life: that of Black American gangs operating openly on the streets of Harlem (rather than via hidden cameras à la In the Street). You could call it a proto Boyz n the Hood (1991) without the Hollywood signifiers of plot, of rise-and-fall characters; it was enough drama to see Duke and the Pythons inside their living rooms, yearning for a gun and restless.

On the other hand, The Cool World has a limited imagination of what constitutes life on a Harlem block in 1963. A local racketeer, Priest (Carl Lee), slaps his white girlfriend several times. There’s neither love nor tenderness in the film. Duke’s mother (Gloria Foster) tugs and yanks at her hair in frustration at not being able to get through to her son. There’s no time to herself, no sense that she exists beyond the mandates of her ‘troubled’ offspring. Are Clarke’s and Wiseman’s aims the same as those whom they recruit to enact the cliché signs of ghetto gunplay?

Shirley Clarke, The Cool World, 1963, film poster. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Black artists were intimately involved in making The Cool World. In interviews, Clarke always made sure to credit Lee, a Harlem-born Black actor, who previously starred in the stage and film versions of The Connection (1959), a play about heroin-addicted jazz musicians. Clarke lived with Lee on and off during the 1960s and, as she attested in a 1985 interview, he was responsible for ‘iron[ing] out the novel, chang[ing] dialogue, put[ting] characters together’. As assistant director and co-writer, Lee oversaw the casting of Harlem youth to appear as fictional variations of themselves in crucial group scenes. The pair also hired Madeline Anderson, who would go on to make such works as I Am Somebody (1970), a landmark documentary about Black women hospital workers on strike in Charleston. Anderson acted as liaison between the mixed-race crew and the Harlem locals, who were understandably suspicious of the filmmakers’ intentions. According to Clarke, in a 1981 interview, the owner of a Black nationalist bookshop even chased her and her crew down the street because he thought they were making an anti-Harlem film.

Shirley Clarke, The Cool World, 1963, film still. Courtesy: Zipporah Films, Inc.

Yet, despite the goodwill intentions of the crew, and despite the arc of film histories (justifiably) positioning The Cool World as a landmark in independent filmmaking and Clarke as a major figure in mid-20th-century American cinema, the bookshop owner was entirely justified in chasing those who he thought were taking, trading and exhibiting images of himself and his people at their own expense. No doubt his response was informed by the historic position of a people who were – and, tiresomely, still are – used to having their likenesses routinely stolen. To watch The Cool World is to glimpse strangely into an encounter between white and Black, between here and elsewhere.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 243 with the headline ‘Cool Connection’

Main image: Shirley Clarke, The Cool World, 1963, film still. Courtesy: Zipporah Films, Inc.

Carlos Valladares is a writer, critic and PhD student in the departments of art history and film at Yale University, New Haven, USA.