The Cool World is the world of Harlem. Film deals generally with its physical and human aspects and also comment on the personal feel and outlook of its characters. Both elements are well blended to make this a telling look at Harlem and probably one of the least patronizing films ever made on Negro life in New York.
A sharp, restless, whiplike camera picks up a Black Muslim spouting hate against the white man and claiming supremacy. Then the Harlem streets and the people listening, or letting the fanatic words float by, come to life and out of the crowd is picked a young teenager, Duke, whose one desire seems to be to own a gun that would give him standing in his own gang. Film [from the novel by Warren Miller] alternates Duke’s story with general scenes of Harlem life.
The natural thesping is by a mainly non-pro cast. But it is chiefly the virile, well observed direction of Shirley Clarke that keeps this long film engrossing and revealing most of the way. She creates a tenseness around the familiar characters by a knowing look at Harlem rhythms, gaiety, lurking desperation, boredom tempered with joviality, and the general oppressiveness of bad housing and employment conditions.
Sometimes the characters get a bit lost in the general schematics of the pic, which at times waters down its underlying irony. But, overall, Clarke has a firm hold on her characters and story.