The Cool World is a 1963 film directed by Shirley Clarke.
Duke (his real name is Robert, but only his mom calls him that) is a 15-year-old gangbanger in Harlem. With nothing in the way of prospects, and apparently not going to school, Duke only has one thing in life to give him hope: his gang, the Royal Pythons. It seems that gang violence has been on the wane of late thanks to social workers, but Duke and his gang hope to change that. Specifically, they want to fight their rival gang, the Wolves, seemingly not for any concrete objective but just for the sake of fighting.
Duke decides that what he really needs to be a big man is a gun (a "piece"); with a gun everybody will be scared of him and take him seriously. He approaches an older gangster and Mafia associate, Priest (Carl Lee, who co-wrote the script with Clarke), and asks for a gun, but Priest demands $50. Duke spends much of the movie trying to scrounge up the money. In the meantime, gang leader Blood (Charles Williams III) brings in a 14-year-old prostitute, Luanne, to basically be the kept woman of the Royal Pythons. Luanne and Duke fall in love. The other Pythons want Duke to take over as leader of the gang, because Blood has a serious heroin problem.
Antonio Fargas has an uncredited part as a gangbanger. Frederick Wiseman, who later became a legendary documentarian, earned his first film credit by producing this movie. Gloria Forster, who played Duke's mom, appeared in The Matrix 36 years later. Dizzy Gillespie composed the soundtrack album.
Not to be confused with Ralph Bakshi's animation/live-action hybrid, Cool World.
- Amusement Park: Luanne lives such a constrained life that she has no idea that New York is on an ocean. So Duke takes her to Coney Island for the beach and a trip to the amusement park. They have what looks like a pretty fun date where they play games and go on rides and he wins her a stuffed animal...then, oddly, she disappears, leaving Duke to call for her before he gives up and goes home. She's never seen again.
- Angry Black Man: The film opens with a startling closeup of a man's face as he shouts into the camera that "The white man is the devil!", and that all other races come from Black men. He appears to be a street organizer.
- The Big Rotten Apple: Harlem, with crime and gangs and rat-infested apartments.
- Blaxploitation: Sometimes considered the Ur-Example of the blaxploitation film, although it's hardly a perfect example—there is little drug use except for one addict who indulges offscreen, there is no violence until the end, there's no nudity, and it's a speech-based work rather than an action movie. But it does have gangs in Harlem, so it's kind of a blaxploitation movie.
- Call-Back: All the excited chatter from Duke's buddies about how he's going to be "a cold killer" once he gets his piece is played back at the end, as Duke is taken away to jail.
- Coming-of-Age Story: A very grim one, as a young man living in the crime-ridden slums of Harlem makes a deliberate decision to being a gangbanger, and over the course of the film graduates from minor crimes like purse-snatching all the way to murder.
- Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: It turns out that Blood, a heroin user and gang dealer, has a brother named Douglas who wears a suit and has just gotten back from going down south with the Freedom Riders. Douglas pleads with Blood to turn over a new leaf but Blood, who is not interested in a lecture, accuses his brother of acting white and tells him to get lost.
- Gangbangers: Possibly the Ur-Example. Duke is a teenaged gangbanger who wants nothing more than to get a gun so he can be an even more dangerous fighter and really scare the rival Wolves.
- Inner Monologue: Quite a lot of this from Duke throughout the movie, as he fantasizes how awesome it would be to have a gun and wonders how he can scrape up $50 to buy one.
- Jailbait Taboo: Discussed Trope, as Luanne admits that she's only 14 then asks Duke, "What's the matter, you afraid of some jail bait?".
- Lady Drunk: The last time we see Priest's moll, Miss Dewpoint, she is drinking alone in Priest's apartment, begging Duke to keep her company, monaning that nobody understands her.
- MacGuffin: The gun ("piece") that Duke wants so badly and spends so much of the movie trying to get. He never does get one, and carries only a knife into the big fight at the end with the Wolves.
- Off-into-the-Distance Ending: The last shot is the police car taking Duke away, after he is arrested apparently within minutes of killing Angel.
- P.O.V. Cam: A lot of wildly jittering P.O.V. Cam from Duke's POV as he flees the scene after murdering Angel.
- Sinister Switchblade: Duke, who really really wants to raise $50, flicks out a switchblade and at knifepoint forces another young boy to buy a joint.
- The Starscream: Duke has ambitions of replacing Blood as leader of the Royal Pythons. He has mixed feelings about it, respecting Blood while also hoping to usurp him. The other gang members support Duke, what with Blood being addicted to heroin.
- To Absent Friends: Before the big fight with the Wolves, one of the Royal Pythons pours out some wine in honor of "the boys upstate"—in prison, that is.
- The Unreveal: Luanne simply disappears from her date on Coney Island with Duke and is never seen again. The other gangbangers suppose that she is "gone" of her own accord but no one ever finds out.
- Would Hit a Girl: Priest slaps his moll, "Miss Dewpoint", in the face when she mouths off to him.