The Cool World | Chicago Reader

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125 minutes · 1964

I haven't seen this striking independent feature by Shirley Clarke since it came out in 1964, so I'm wary of evaluating it on the basis of my memories. Adapted by Clarke and Carl Lee from a novel by Warren Miller and a play by Miller and Robert Rossen, and shot mainly on location in Harlem, it certainly had a visceral impact when it first appeared, helped enormously by Baird Bryant's cinematography and Dizzy Gillespie's score. But critics were divided at the time about the film's meaning and impact as social protest. As a trip by a white woman filmmaker into what amounted to a third-world country, it was and probably is something of a shocker; the plot concerns the efforts of a 14-year-old boy (Hampton Clanton) to get a gun from a racketeer (Lee) so he can be the leader of his gang. Frederick Wiseman produced the picture, and Gloria Foster and Clarence Williams III also figure in the cast. This was Shirley Clarke's second feature (The Connection was her first), and some critics still consider it her best.

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