Social Tendencies: The Cool World
IMDB user alfiehitchie provides the following for the website’s summary of The Cool World:
Filmmaker Shirley Clarke (“The Connection”) directs this powerful, stark semi-documentary look at the horrors of Harlem ghetto slum life filled with drugs, violence, human misery, and a sense of despair due to the racial prejudices of American society. There is no patronizing of the black race in this cinematic cry for justice. A fifteen-year-old boy called Duke is ambitious to buy a “piece” (a gun) from an adult racketeer named Priest, to become president of the gang to which he belongs, and to return them to active “bopping” (gang fighting) which has declined in Harlem. It is a clearly patent allegory of an attempt by Duke to attain manhood and identity in the only way accessible to him - the antisocial one.
I would contend that there is nothing particularly antisocial about Duke’s actions. In a society predicated on violence, yearning for a violent instrument is perhaps the most social act. The effect of drugs and gangs on Harlem youth is rightfully remarked upon in discussion of Clarke’s film, but the characters themselves are quick to explain that the place they live is just as much an enemy as any “bad seeds” might be. Indeed, the problem with the bad seed theory is it gets applied to society at large to assuage any guilt that might be experienced over institutionally destructive forces. One might look at the history of housing policies, the constitution of armed police forces, the War on Drugs and countless other initiatives as a means to oppress certain population. Alternatively, we can simply say that the instant of injustice - the officer who hurts Duke’s friend, the repression experienced by the Freedom Riders and so on - is the result of a bad seed. Thus we paper over the existence of the violent gang member and the violent cop.
In response, we talk about controlling guns or increasing the number of police officers and don’t talk about structural violence. We talk about the moment that harm is done to bodies or property, but only insofar as those bodies and property are seen as valuable, generally due their similarity to the dominant faction. It is fundamentally a problem of empathy. The most stirring image in The Cool World is a brief cut of Duke looking out from a bus full of young black men and staring into a bus full of young white men. We know, too, that Duke and his friends are poor and must make their way down to Wall Street on a field trip just to have this encounter. This is the closest they will come to living in the same world.