For me, the real story of this film is told in the smaller, throwaway moments surrounding the main action.
Duke (Hampton Clanton) is fifteen, and a member of the Royal Pythons gang in Harlem. The Python’s leader Blood (Clarence Williams III) is losing favor with the others – some say Blood is getting a little too drugged-up – and Duke wants to take things over. But to really prove himself as a leader, he believes, he needs a gun. A local gangster named “Priest” (Carl Lee) can sell him one, but the price is steep and Priest won’t wait forever. So much of this film follows Duke’s efforts to hustle up the money for his gun, while simultaneously keeping the peace at the Python’s clubhouse, ducking police, running other errands for Priest, and courting the affections of LuAnne (Yolanda Rodriguez), a girl originally brought to the Pythons as an in-house prostitute.
Duke’s story is itself sadly familiar; we’ve had a lot of stories of teens feeling ostracized by society and embraced by a street gang, and in many of those stories some of those kids end up disillusioned by the end. Others get arrested, others die. Even the scene where Blood’s more studious college-age brother comes to give him a talking-to is something I’ve seen before. It is impressive, though, that the actors are all non-professionals – director Shirley Clarke took a page from the Italian neo-realists and worked with non-actors for this work, some of them actual gang members, and all of the kids do a bang-up job.
But it was some of the other bits Clarke included to set up scenes or give a flavor of Duke’s world that really drew me in. The whole movie kicks off with a tight closeup on the face of a street preacher, staring directly into the camera and decrying the sins which The White Man has done to African-Americans. Only after several seconds does Clark pull out to reveal the preacher is on a Harlem streetcorner, surrounded by passersby; some thoughtfully listening, some shaking heads dubiously.
Another scene sees Duke and some of his friends getting piled onto a bus by a harried schoolteacher, trying to keep order as he leads a field trip down to Wall Street. But even I thought his repeated appeals to the boys’ sense of pride, and his attempts to inspire them by talking about “George Washington walking on these same streets,” were completely misguided – especially when we saw later scenes of drudgery and poverty in the streets where these kids actually lived. The teacher thinks that behaving with dignity and being eloquent is what earns you respect; but Duke knows that where he comes from, that doesn’t mean anything, and respect only comes when you own a gun.