Shirley Clarke (October 2, 1919 – September 23, 1997) was a pioneer avant-garde filmmaker and early proponent of video. In 1963, her documentary about the poet Robert Frost won an Academy Award, yet the sexism of Hollywood made a feature film career there impossible. Clarke then moved to The Chelsea Hotel in New York City, divorced her husband, and spent the nineteen sixties making four feature films focused on or inclusive of Black men. The first, The Connection, based on Jack Gelber’s play about a heroin addicted jazz musicians.
It was there that she met her long-time lover, Carl Lee (son of actor Canada Lee) and began her explorative collaboration with jazz musicians, working here with Jackie MacLean. The Connection was repressed by Obscenity laws (actors referred to drugs as “shit”) and won a significant victory in the courts. Her next work Cool World, is considered by many to be the first “docudrama”, it rejected Hollywood story-telling to engage the lives of gang members, and was produced by the great documentarian Frederick Wiseman.
In 1967 she released Portrait of Jason, the first film starring a Black gay man. She shot 12 hours of Jason Holliday, a raconteur, hustler, con-artist, artist and edited the film down to 90 minutes. For fifty years it has been a controversial, troubling and complex film which is ahead of its time and yet behind reality. Her final feature, Ornette: Made In America was an experimental portrait of Ornette Coleman that was not completed until 1985. It was released in 20014 along with lovingly preserved editions of all her films, by Milestone Pictures. She died of Alzheimers.
Watch: Shirley Clarke on IMDb
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