For all its brusque cutting, disjointed narrative, and frustrating half-glances at its characters, [The Cool World] is the most important film document about Negro life in Harlem to have been made so far. It is a steadfast perusal of a group of adolescents, members of a gang calling them-selves the "Royal Pythons"; but Clarke is as interested in the streets, buildings, backyards, and faces of Harlem as she is in her misguided young hero, Duke Custis…. With the aid of two extremely perceptive cameramen, Baird Bryant and Leroy McLucas, the director manages to seize upon those details that make The Cool World a work of visual poetry, and in sound, a tone poem of the slums. There is little humor in the film, although an early sequence, in which an anguished high-school teacher leads his unruly class of Negro boys through the Wall Street district, has a wild, improbable sort of inanity about it. Most of one's attention is drawn to the routine of the gang as they quarrel, fight, and disperse in Harlem's pattern of violence and moral corruption. (pp. 172-73)
In the novel form, The Cool World was easier to tell; in the film version, every character is so vivid that each one struggles (because we are able to see him in many varying and fascinating situations) to have his story told. The film is so totally alive with the desperation of the dark, of being black and ignored, that Duke is often the least interesting person in the story. (p. 173)
It is amazing that Shirley Clarke was able to compress as much into the film as she did, because it is fairly bursting with questions to unresolved problems and unresolved people. The cry of displacement is sounded by Duke's grandmother…. His mother …, a deeply disillusioned, hip scuffler, knows too well that Harlem usually gets to be "too much" for its men to endure; they run away to a less stultifying oblivion. Most denizens of Harlem are not overtly aware of their isolation, because when one is born into a ghetto, it becomes a refuge, and disturbingly enough, a comfortable retreat from the vast anonymity of white life "downtown." (pp. 173-74)
In The Cool World, the white world is rejected: its codes and standards, its well-meaning visitor, its curious stares from Sunday bus riders, its storekeepers, its landlords, its everything is rejected. Harlem's dependence upon the white world around it is not explored in this film, adding to the peculiar incompleteness of the story. For example, there had been some episodes in the book (and, I believe, in the initial cut of the film) describing the boys' hustling of white homosexuals in Central Park for spending money; and one of the boys, Chester, became the kept lover of a wealthy patron in a swank Manhattan penthouse. However, probably because of the taboo subject matter and contemporary concern with "the image" of racial characterizations, these aspects of the narrative were eliminated. (p. 175)
The struggle for self-improvement is made to appear a hopeless one for these Harlemites. When Duke stops in a playground to talk to Hardy, a neighborhood basketball player, it becomes clear that Hardy's skills are aimed toward athletic success that will surpass all similar accomplishments by "those half-assed little grey boys": At the basis of every motivation in The Cool World, there is an undercurrent of antiwhite anger. The "coolness" that must be maintained is an emotional control, repressed in turmoil, camouflaging the Negro's realization that the white world, no matter how "uncool," is one in which he needs a place; a desirable world with which he is not yet able to cope.
Shirley Clarke's contributions to the American cinema are honest, extremely personal works, and The Connection's portraits of Negroes in the narcotics underworld and The Cool World's violent Negro juveniles illustrate the background of that urban demoralization which ultimately destroys whatever might possibly flower in American Negro culture. To Negro audiences, these lessons and images are not new; the works of Richard Wright and Ann Petry, for instance, long ago dramatized the ghetto-as-battleground in American literature. But to white audiences, wherever The Cool World is shown, the beautifully observed vignettes of Negroes living calmly in an unnatural habitat—the baking, narrow streets and tenements, the sidewalk conversations, the gambling, a tight-suited girl waiting for a bus—these are etchings of cinematic truthfulness. Naturally, there are jazz trumpets in the air; after all the decades of history-with-myth, the linkage of dark people and jazz music is inescapable, an accepted cultural cliché. But Shirley Clarke is very much aware of all these matters and in Harlem the muses do hum the blues. (pp. 175-76)
Albert Johnson, "The Negro in American Films: Some Recent Works, in Film Quarterly (copyright 1965 by The Regents of the University of California; reprinted by permission of the University of California Press), Vol. XVIII, No. 4, 1965 (and reprinted in Black Films and Film-Makers: A Comprehensive Anthology from Stereotype to Superhero, edited by Lindsay Patterson, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1975, pp. 153-81).∗