Reel Classics | The Cool World (1963)

by Tim Gordon

One of our favorite hobbies is discovering rarely-seen classic Black films that we can reintroduce to our audience. Our latest recommendation is one of two gems from 1963, director Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World.

Set in the meanest sections of Harlem, The Cool World centers on a powerful street gang member, Duke (Hampton Clanton) who claims that he is motivated by the Black Muslim movement. His subsequent criminal activities are thus not merely for gain, but as a means to declare black supremacy over the white establishment.

In the film, Duke, a member of the Royal Pythons, lives in Harlem with his mother and grandmother. Following the departure of their friend Littleman’s father, the Pythons appropriate the apartment, installing Luanne as the resident prostitute. Even though Luanne is Python president Blood’s girlfriend, she and Duke fall in love. Discovering that Blood is a heroin addict, Duke assumes leadership of the gang. During an idyll at Coney Island, however, Luanne vanishes, and Duke returns to Harlem. During a halfhearted battle with the Wolves, a rival gang, Duke stabs an antagonist. Seeking refuge, he rushes to Python headquarters, where he discovers the corpse of a friend. At home, he is apprehended by police.

Along with Nothing But a Man, the film is one of Clarke’s few mainstream projects. In addition, The Cool World was the first commercial film venture to be shot on location in Harlem. The largely unknown cast features future luminaries (and husband and wife) Clarence Williams III and Gloria Foster.

Utilizing first-time actors and true-life ghettos for scenery, Clarke’s film dramatizes the life of young gang bangers in 1960s Harlem and transcends its narrative to deliver a vivid picture of inner-city life.

Check out a clip of the film, below: