Overlooked & Underseen: Cooley High (1975)
“We were friends, a long time ago.
Laughin’, rappin’, chasin’ girls,
Obeying no law, except the law of caring.
Basketball days and high nights,
No tomorrows, unable to remember yesterday.
We live for today….”
I first saw Cooley High last year while it was still available on FilmStruck. I’ve known about it for a couple of decades, mostly because the show I’d watch every day afterschool, What’s Happening!!, was very loosely based on the movie. I was way past due for a watch of the movie, and if you haven’t seen it, well then, you are, too.
It’s Chicago, 1964 and best friends Preach (Glynn Thurman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) are just treading water until graduation from Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School. Cochise is a star basketball player with a scholarship to college and Preach, well, he’s smart as hell but doesn’t really give a shit about school. His dream is to become a famous Hollywood screenwriter one day. He likes to write poetry and read history books “for fun” but he’s basically flunking all of his classes. When we first see Preach, Cochise is trying to get him out of bed to go to school. Preach had been skipping school for a few days. One they get to school, the two boys, along with a couple of other friends, decide to ditch a period and head to the zoo. The boys have a great time hopping turnstiles to ride the train, and jumping on the back bumper of a bus to get where they are going. Once they get to the zoo, Preach distracts a snack bar worker so the other boys can grab some food. They eventually head back to school and hear about a house party going on that night and plan on attending.
Before going to the house party, the boys procure some “wine” (really, it’s Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill. Remind me to tell you about the time I was in London with a friend and she bought some SH from an off license and got so drunk, she couldn’t leave the room for 2 days trying to recover. Good times!). They go to a back alley and drink but not before Cochise pours a little on the ground and says that was for the guys who aren’t there anymore. They all start ribbing Preach about his poetry. One of the boys pull out a notebook and starts reading the poetry aloud. Preach gets really upset that his privacy was invaded and he was being made fun of. Cochise tries to calm his best friend down. The boys eventually make it to the house party. Once inside they all try to pick up a woman. Cochise is extremely good looking with a million dollar smile so he has no problems, all the girls want him. Preach spots a girl across the room and he’s smitten. He tries to chat her up but she’s having none of it. Of course, a fight breaks out between Cochise and the boyfriend of the girl he was dancing with. He tries to apologize but the other guy starts throwing punches. The boys all leave the party, amped up from the fighting. When two other friends, Stone and Robert, pull up in a car, they ask the boys to go for a ride. Cochise really wants to go and he pressures Preach to go with them.
Preach likes to tell a lot of stories to try to impress the people he’s with. They all know he’s lying but Preach does it anyway. While joyriding in the stolen car, Preach ends up driving. It’s clear he’s never driven a car in his life, but he sets off down the highway anyway. Eventually, the cops try to pull them over. Preach leads them on a wild chase but ends up crashing. The boys scatter in different directions. The cops show up at school the next day and arrest Cochise and Preach just as they are about to take Mr. Mason’s (Garrett Morris) mid-term. A mid-term that, if they don’t pass, they won’t graduate. At the police station, all four boys are there and they all tell a different story. Mr. Mason goes to the jail and convinces the arresting office (who is his friend) to let Cochise and Preach out of jail. This makes Stone and Robert really angry. Once they get out of jail, Stone and Robert go looking for the two boys. Cochise is running around the neighborhood looking for Preach. Preach finds out they are looking for them and tries to find Cochise before Stone and Robert do.
Cooley High has been called the companion piece to American Graffiti and I can’t really argue with that. Whereas American Graffiti follows a bunch of suburban middle-class white kids for one night, Cooley High depicts a few days in the life of working class black kids from the projects. Screenwriter Eric Monte (Preach his pretty much Monte in the film) has said he wanted to show what his life was like living in a housing project (Cabrini–Green in his case) in Chicago. Monte has said there were a lot of myths around regarding life in the projects and he wanted people to know the truth about growing up there.
Glynn Thurman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs are terrific. I’ve had a crush on Hilton-Jacobs ever since he was a “Sweathog” on the television show Welcome Back, Kotter in the 70s. Garrett Morris is great, too, as the boys’ teacher. There’s a scene between he and Preach where he’s talking to him about not wasting his potential that makes you hope we all have a teacher like that in our lives. The film used a lot of local people from the area so some of the acting from minor characters isn’t all that great but it doesn’t really matter.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the amazing soundtrack of the movie. Every single song is an absolute gem. It’s got everyone from The Supremes and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles to The Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. It’s Motown for days, and you should own this music if you don’t already.
This being an AIP movie, they didn’t spend a lot of money (except maybe on the soundtrack) so the production is pretty bare bones. The direction, by Michael Schulz (Car Wash, Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and dozens of television shows), is nothing flashy but it doesn’t need to be. The movie is really about the joy and heartbreak these friends go through together in the few weeks before graduation. Unlike an AIP movie, Cooley High isn’t exploitation and it doesn’t show gratuitous sex and/or violence. You know, I love that stuff but it’s not like the movie needs any of this.
At last check, Cooley High was streaming on the Brown Sugar app (which you can get as an Amazon channel. It’s well worth the small price each month). It’s also out on Blu-ray.