Shirley bio draft


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 and 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.

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.