Portrait of Shirley 

A Documentary about Filmmaker Shirley Clarke

If she had been a man or hadn’t trained her cameras so intently at black Americans, she would have likely received more attention while she was alive. But then she wouldn’t have been Shirley Clarke—pioneer, radical, visionary.” — Manohla Dargis, The New York Times 

Shirley Clarke was an inventor of independent film in America. In the 1950’s and early 60’s, she declared flat-out war on the reigning conformist image factory: “Who says a film has to cost a million dollars and be safe and innocuous enough to satisfy every 12-year-old in America?

These treasures, and their invaluable expertise, are major project assets. Additionally, Milestone will distribute the completed film, a rare opportunity for any contemporary documentary to reach a wide and discerning international audience.

Clarke helped start a cultural revolution by filming people never seen on Hollywood screens: Harlem gang members; jazz musicians, including the great Ornette Coleman; heroin addicts; a single Latina mother; and the inimitable Jason Holliday, one of the first gay black men ever immortalized on screen. As she nd other founders of independent cinema put it in a famous 1961 manifesto: “We don’t want false, polished, slick films—we prefer them rough, unpolished, but alive; we don’t want rosy films—we want them the color of blood.

Shirley directing The Cool World

With outsider subjects and fresh stylistic approaches, Clarke took risks. Her feature-length works, including The Connection (1961); The Cool World (1964); Portrait of Jason (1967); and Ornette: Made in America (1985), all melt the boundaries between documentary and fiction, and break new ground in cinema. Shirley’s career follows the whole sweep of moving image art in the 20th century: starting with her avant-garde shorts, to fiction and doc features, and then on to the video frontier of interactivity and social practice art.

And yet—who knows her story? Of the 28 signatories of the 1961 New American Cinema Manifesto, Clarke was the only woman, a role she held for a long time, and one reason she’s been neglected for so long.

It’s time to change that. It’s time to bring Shirley Clarke’s legacy back to life—and also to finally break the blockade against women directors in our time.

Project History and Background

The genesis of this project lies with Milestone Film, a remarkable small distribution company that specializes in bringing lost cinematic gems back to life. Many of their titles are almost-forgotten films made by women, Native American, and black directors; they write outsider artists back into history.

Shirley with her longtime partner, actor Carl Lee
Milestone’s diligence and good taste over 25 years has won awards and the respect of the film world: Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola, Barbara Kopple, Steven Soderbergh, Thelma Schoonmaker, Jonathan Demme, Charles Burnett and Sherman Alexie have all co-sponsored release campaigns.

Four years ago, Milestone launched “Project Shirley.” They have painstakingly restored and re-released almost all Clarke’s features, rescuing her from neglect. They also uncovered a mother lode of unseen material from home movies to video works.

Milestone asked filmmaker Immy Humes to direct, on the basis of Doc, the critically-acclaimed film she made about her father, forgotten novelist and founder of The Paris Review H.L. “Doc” Humes. Doc Humes was a friend of Shirley’s, and their stories resonate, as artists working in the face of personal demons and quickly changing social conditions of the post-war era.

To date, we have seed funds from over 50 small donors, and are plunging into shooting interviews with important octognarian friends and colleagues of Shirley’s, including: DA Pennebaker (her early work partner); Jonas Mekas; Fred Wiseman (producer of her feature, The Cool World); Agnes Varda; and other notables. At the same time we are developing our team and seeking production funds.

Style and Approach 

Above all, this is a film about a woman artist. Shirley had a mission we must embrace today: to smash blockades against female creation. In her words:

There's deep discrimination against women artists... I was a representative of tokenism. I was relied on to be the woman filmmaker. No one person can carry that burden. There's no question that my career would have been different if I was a man, but if I was a man I would be a different human being…. The industry's been rotten. The history of women in all the arts has been rotten. The history of women is rotten.” (interview by DeeDee Hallack, project participant)

In the Chelsea Hotel (Photo by Peter Angelo Simon)

Women are still held back from making movies. Of 2013’s 100 top money-makers, women directed only two. The discrimination Shirley dealt with throughout her career persists in the film industry even today—her story is incredibly relevant.

We approach Shirley’s story as an unfolding drama, told in her own voice, with her daughter, Wendy Clarke, video artist, and an all-star cast of her film artist friends. We have a wealth of cinematic riches to work with: from the camera’s soaring dance with urban bridges in Bridges Go Round, to the B&W documentary grit of Harlem (inspiration for Scorsese’s film of Michael Jackson’s hit Bad) and the proto-Afrofuturist video of Ornette Coleman in space—our film will have great dramatic, visual,     musical, and social interest.

Shirley’s is a contemporary story, and our style will reflect that. This is not a history film, its subject is not dead, our subject is life itself.

More on Shirley Clarke

Also see ProjectShirley.com by Milestone Films.

“Dancer, bride, runaway wife, radical filmmaker and pioneer — Shirley Clarke is one of the great undertold stories of American independent cinema. A woman working in a predominantly male world, a white director who turned her camera on black subjects, she was a Park Avenue rich girl who willed herself to become a dancer and a filmmaker, ran away to bohemia, hung out with the Beats and held to her own vision in triumph and defeat. She helped inspire a new film movement and made urgently vibrant work that blurs fiction and nonfiction, only to be marginalized, written out of histories and dismissed as a dilettante. She died in 1997 at 77 and is long overdue for a reappraisal.”

        — Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

"Shirley Clarke was a gorgeously baroque and complex personality, a character worthy of a novel or two. But what she did as a filmmaker, the subjects she chose, and how she related as a director to her medium has become so much a part of the vocabulary of cinema that her movies – ‘The Cool World,’ for instance, or ‘Ornette in America’ -- are nothing less than essential."

        — John Anderson, member of the New York Film Critics Circle

"The most extraordinary film I've seen in my life is certainly Portrait of Jason… It is absolutely fascinating."

            — Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman