Movie: Cooley High (1975)

Hard to believe there was a time when one could load their movie soundtrack with an album’s worth of prime Motown sides from the 60’s for a pittance.  And yet that’s what happened with Cooley High when it was in production in 1974.  People may think tastes change faster now, but the present can’t complete with how radically different urban culture was between 1964, when the movie takes place, and 1974.

This is an American International Pictures release.  Although that studio raked in the dough around that time for their blaxploitation flicks, Cooley High has none of the trappings of that genre.  There are no monsters, guns, pimps or prostitutes.  Nobody does any martial arts.  This is just a movie about a group of teenagers in Cabrini Green, in their senior year of high school in 1964.

This movie is unique in so many ways that it is difficult to summarize all of them here.  It is a comedy-drama in that it is almost all comedy up to a certain point near the middle, only to become solidly drama in the second half.  It shows how people can be happy and fulfilled even when they are, by most people’s definition, poor.  And it is somehow light-hearted and good-natured, even when these guys joyride in a stolen car (admittedly, they weren’t the ones who stole it), drink or smoke dope. 

The center of the group is Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs).  These two own these roles but what is surprising is how good the rest of the cast is when, aside from a teacher played by Garrett Morris, everybody else is an amateur who actually lived in that neighborhood at the time.

What most intrigues me about this picture is how this group of friends could seem so real.  The camaraderie and rapport is so natural that I wish I had ever had friends like these.  I know I can’t imagine what it is like to be black, impoverished or living in the Civil Rights era, let alone all three, but there’s still something magical captured here which I have never experienced personally. I would even settle for being Pooter–poor, lowly Pooter, for chrissakes!

The screenplay is by Eric Monte, writing from his own recollections.  I have never seen an interview with Monte, but it is easy to imagine him as Preach, the bookish guy who, according to text at the end, went on to become a successful Hollywood screenwriter.  Indeed, Monte was already established at the time this film was made, having been one of the creators of TV’s Good Times.

In a bizarre twist, those Motown tracks I mentioned in the opening paragraph prevented this picture from having a legitimate release on videotape.  Basically, nobody at the time of its production could foresee the coming home video revolution, so the soundtrack rights were only negotiated for the theatrical release.  Ironic that the film which turned those old tunes into gold again was the overwhelmingly white The Big Chill

I find it disappointing the most frequent description applied to Cooley High is “a black American Graffiti”.  Such labels do a disservice to both movies.  Maybe I am delusional, but I identified far more with Cooley High than I ever did Lucas’s film.  This is a great movie to revisit, to spend a bit of time with some old friends I never had.

Dir: Michael Schultz

Starring Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Garrett Morris, Cynthia Davis

Watched on Criterion Collection blu-ray