Directed by Shirley Clarke, written by Clarke and Carl Lee
Selected by Allison Anders
I first saw Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World in 1983 when I was a film student at UCLA, where she was a professor. The screening was in a class taught by Clarke’s fellow professor, Janet Bergstrom—they did a Q&A together after the film. That movie, which was at that time twenty years old, and the discussion that followed, were life-changing for me and would impact my own work to this day.
That the movie is gorgeously shot, with an inventive use of direct-to-camera interviews of the characters within a fictional narrative, is only the beginning of its many cinematic accomplishments: Clarke also cast non-actor, real gang youth in leads alongside professional actors Carl Lee, Gloria Foster, and Clarence White III in one of his earliest on-screen performances. Authenticity is not just a feel in this movie, it’s driving the narrative.
After the screening, Clarke discussed what would radically inform my work and life when she said she had vowed to keep in touch with the real-life gang kids in the movie for twenty years afterward because, as she explained, they had not set out to become actors and she could not abandon them. Ten years after seeing The Cool World that first time, I made my film Mi Vida Loca with real gang kids alongside professional actors and they are still in my life today.
There is no other movie like The Cool World. Because of its authenticity, it is completely unique and it is a living document of a specific time and place in American history. It is absolutely necessary that this film becomes found by as many eyes as possible.
Shirley Clarke was the very first woman director I saw talk about her own feature work. It was massively impactful. The Cool World is not only a film of wonder, it was made by such a brilliant woman. AA