COOLEY HIGH (1975)

  • Director: Michael Schultz
  • Writer: Eric Monte
  • Starring: Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Cynthia Davis, Sherman Smith, Norman Gibson, Garrett Morris, and Corin Rogers
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate.com Black Film Canon
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla (library app), buy or rent on Vudu.

It is probably inevitable that Cooley High would have received the moniker of “the Black American Graffiti,” given that it came out less than two years after the latter movie and both movies feature a bunch of high school kids at the end of their senior years, both are set in the early 1960s and traded on the nostalgia of their audiences, both feature soundtracks packed with period hits that likely took up most of the movies’ budgets, in this case a long series of Motown tracks, and both made back their miniscule budgets many times over. Both even have title cards at the end revealing the future fates of various teenage characters, a technique that became hackneyed so quickly that today it is almost shocking to see it used unironically. But unlike George Lucas’ unvarnished nostalgia, the makers of Cooley High cannot quite bring themselves to paper over the bad bits of their own teenage years. American Graffiti had no parents, and certainly would never have come within a hundred yards of the scene in this movie where one of the main characters’ mothers comes home exhausted from one of her three jobs, chastises him for his latest escapade, and asks him to go get his belt from upstairs (so she can beat him with it), but then falls asleep in her chair by the time he returns.

Cooley High’s director, Michael Schultz, and its writer, Eric Monte, both grew up in the notorious Cabrini-Green housing project in Chicago (the same low-income development that served as the setting, decades later, for Candyman). Schultz stated that the movie’s inspiration came from his desire to dispel myths about growing up in “the projects,” and described his teenage years there as “the most fun you can have while inhaling and exhaling.” The movie itself meanders amiably through the final weeks of Senior Year for two seniors and their various friends at the titular Chicago high school (also Schultz’s alma mater), as they skip class, dance to the latest Motown records, and try to get girls with greatly varying levels of success. “Preach” (Glynn Turman) is a bespectacled aspiring playwright, while his best friend “Cochise” (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) is a basketball star who at one point celebrates a scholarship to Grambling State.

Despite Schultz’s rosy recollections of his childhood, the hijinks contained herein are perhaps more, um, down to Earth than you might be expecting? There is one caper in which the two friends want to go to the movies, but need money, so they fool two prostitutes into thinking they’re police officers, get them to bribe them ten dollars through the clever ploy of blurting out, “We accept bribes!” and then running away when the girls realize the ruse. The movie’s most “rollicking” bit comes from a bit where Preach’s inexperienced driving draws the attention of the Cops, and the boys are so scared of being pulled over that they lead the police on a merry chase through the Navy Pier while shouting at each other (even the subtitles just read “incoherent yelling”).

But because Cooley High is set somewhere inside reality, it isn’t long before the police appear in the friends’ classroom, announcing they are arresting them for “Grand Theft Auto.” Their tough but fair teacher (Garrett Morris) intercedes on their behalf with one of the police officers who happens to be his friend, resulting in their release, but everyone else thinks that the police let them go because they snitched on their other friends. This leads to a hectic third act that ends in tragedy, and one of the most effective “graveside speech” scenes I’ve ever seen in a movie. In a lesser movie, this would be a hard left turn, but somehow Cooley High is sufficiently in touch with its central truths to make it all work. Then it tells us the future fates of the rest of the characters, set to “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5.

Cooley High was met with both audience and critical acclaim upon its initial release. Variety, seemingly to its own shock as much as anyone, pronounced that you didn’t “have to be Black to enjoy it immensely.” On a budget of about $750,000, the movie made back at least $13 million at the box office, and launched Schultz into a very rare tier for a director of color at the time. His next movie, the comedy Car Wash, was just as much a success. Then he was given the largest budget given to any Black director up to that time, but, unfortunately for him, it was for the most misbegotten of projects: Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, starring the Bee Gees, and it was a disaster. I don’t have time here to unreel all the craziness involved with that movie, though suffice to say it did not make money. Though his career did not continue on an upward trajectory, he keeps working today, primarily in TV, on lots of shows you’ve probably seen. His film also proved extremely influential with future directors like Spike Lee and John Singleton. The latter frequently cited Cooley High as among the primary influences for Boyz N the Hood.

I’ll admit, the movie’s amiability put me off-balance a little. It’s such a “hang out” movie, with so much of the dialogue versions of “heeey man,” that I found myself tuning out at times. But in the end you end up caring about these people. It is hard to see Motown as particularly transgressive, though perhaps it was at the time, I’m honestly unclear on that. What it does is lend some bits of this movie an underpinning sock-hoppiness, yet, somehow, it does not feel overwhelmingly of another time and place. The characters are always quite recognizably teenagers, even as they brawl in the balcony of a showing of Godzilla vs. Mothra.

I had trouble getting started with Cooley High, but it grabbed me as it went on. I would certainly recommend it to anyone, and not as an artifact or a relic, but a fun movie the same way you’d see a fun movie today. Movies about teenagers from 2004 hardly seem as contemporary as bits of this movie, which is sort of a miracle.

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