The Kids Stay in the Picture: The Cool World, by Aaron Pinkston
Though comedian W.C. Fields famously said “Never work with animals or children,” the cinema is full of wonderful stories told through the eyes of the young. Films with child protagonists span every genre, generation, and film movement. “The Kids Stay in the Picture” surveys this interesting subgenre, following the School of the Art Institute and Gene Siskel Film Center film series “The Child in Cinema.” The series will cover the many historical and social contexts around why films centered on children are so integral to the landscape of world cinema.
Most likely the least seen film of this series, The Cool World is a unique film. Directed by undersung filmmaker Shirley Clarke (Portrait of Jason) and produced by legendary documentarian Frederick Wiseman, The Cool World is a Harlem-set coming-of-age story from the Film-Makers’ Cooperative (also known as the New American Cinema Group), a new generation of loosely-connected New York filmmakers who worked with tiny budgets and made films utilized both avant-garde and realist styles. Aside from Clarke, the major members in the 1960s were Jonas Mekas, John Cassavetes, Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, and Stan Brakhage, all filmmakers known for making films with documentary influences, regardless of whether or not they could strictly be called documentaries. Based on nine original principles including film production and distribution, the Film-Makers’ Cooperative sought to fight a Hollywood machine they found “morally corrupt, esthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring.” The Cool World comes directly out of this criteria – a brash, energetic, political film about an African-American teenage experience.
The Cool World opens with a tight close-up of a black street preacher, directly addressing the camera, sermonizing that the white man is the devil, the black man is the original man; that as white is the absence of color, the white man is incomplete. As he continues, the film cuts to a number of black people around him and throughout Harlem. It’s a powerful opening, setting up both the racial underlinings of the story, the film’s documentary style, and the gritty urban setting. From there, we meet Duke, a teenager with aspirations of growing within his community as a youth gang leader. The Cool World’s main plot line involves Duke trying to earn money to buy a handgun from local gang kingpin Priest (played by co-writer Carl Lee).
Though the film opens with this racial outcry, Duke’s worldview doesn’t think too much about white culture. No doubt, his bubble in Harlem has become greatly segregated and insular—one character dreams about running away to San Francisco just to see the ocean, not realizing that it is at the end of a subway line. For much of the film, the only white characters we see are the cops patrolling the streets, always present in their silent onlooking. Directly following the film’s invigorating opening, we are introduced to Duke and his pals on a field trip to Manhattan where their aggravated chaperone shows them Wall Street and the New York Public Library to little fanfare. This scene shows the disconnect between the African-American youth and their broader community; these symbols of opportunity are within the same city limits, but seem unattainably far from their mean streets.
Unlike the kids in some of the films I’ve covered in the series, Duke has a family (a mother and grandmother) who care for him and seem to want to have some positive influence. They play such a small role in the film, however, making the mother’s heartbreaking pleas to her son ever more so. Instead, Duke’s primary family is the Royal Pythons, the gang of kids he comes to lead. The group is something like the Dead End Gang, a popular film group of the 1930s most known from ganger pic Angels with Dirty Faces (William Wyler’s Dead End was previously shown as part of this film series, but I was not able to see/write on it). They are a particular breed of roustabouts that survive without much adult supervision, save for the street-level local crime figures who serve as mentors. Given the political nature of The Cool World, the gang is more socially conscious than their white counterparts, and certainly live in a much more dangerous world.
Duke skews a bit older than most of the kids in this series. I suspect him to be about 14, so technically right around the same age as Antoine Doinel from The 400 Blows, but Duke’s particular social situation and independent environment seem to add a few years to him. There really aren’t many films about pre-teen African-American youth (I can’t think of any off the top of my head), but the viewpoint is critical here. The Cool World’s look at poverty, gang violence, and racial disharmony simply works better through the eyes of a budding adult. For much of the film, Duke plays the tough guy with his aspirations of becoming a gang leader, though there are certainly glimpses of the young boy he truly is. This is most apparent in the climactic moments, during a brawl with a rival youth gang. When Duke ultimately kills a boy on the other side, it isn’t the tough coming-of-age moment he may have expected. His emotional, panicked response may be the moment he is most like a child, reflected in the complete loss of his already weathered innocence.
Duke’s artificial maturity lends to a theme essential to coming-of-age films that hasn’t fully been addressed yet in this series: sexuality. Aside from his family, the film has two female characters, both prostitutes with hearts of gold. The lesser character is the girlfriend of Priest, something of a Marilyn Monroe stand-in lonely bombshell who has a heartfelt conversation with Duke near the end of the film. Here, as the older woman pleads for some sympathy from Duke, he seems incredibly child-like, unable to offer emotional or physical support for the more experienced woman. Then there’s Luanne, a 14-year-old girl brought in by the Royal Pythons’ former leader, the drugged-up Blood (an early role for Clarence Williams III), to be the clubhouse girl to pass around. When Duke takes on leadership in Blood’s absence, he becomes close with Luanne, though the sexual power dynamic is still strongly tipped on Duke’s side. Luanne is another of the film’s heartbreaking characters as she has dreams but seems perfectly resigned to her status (at the least, she is adaptive to it). Being a supporting character, it is more difficult to see her point-of-view, unfortunately making the character a bit more problematic.
The Cool World proved a fascinating film to discover. It has the energy and substance of an early Spike Lee film, though it was directed by a white, Jewish woman who was raised in a wealthy family. Clarke’s interest in non-traditional narratives and documentary aesthetics are what bolster the film, making it still surprising today. As Bosley Crowther put it in his review for the New York Times in 1964, The Cool World “is boldly and studiously styled as a literal documentation of a particular social scene, and its attack is more that of the reporter than of the interested teller of a tale.” Rony Clanton (billed as Hampton Clanton) gives a fine performance as Duke, but The Cool World really isn’t as much about the performances as it is about looking more deeply into the social context of the characters. Once again, this is a first-time, non-trained actor in the lead role as the child, but while Clanton’s name might not be recognizable, he has gone on to an interesting career with roles Malcolm X, The Devil’s Advocate, nine episodes of Boardwalk Empire, all the way to a recent episode of HBO’s Vinyl.
 The Film-Makers Cooperative, History
 Bosley Crowther, The Cool World Review, The New York Times, April 21, 1964