An African-American alternative to American Graffiti (1973), this charming nostalgia piece depicts the highs and lows of teen life in the black housing projects of Chicago’s North Side during the mid-’60s. Writer Eric Monte based the script on his experiences as a student at the real Cooley High, an inner-city vocational school, and together with director Michael Schultz, Monte does a wonderful job of capturing the exuberance and vitality of a particular historical moment. Boasting a soundtrack filled with great Motown tunes, Cooley High doesn’t dwell on the challenged economic circumstances of its characters, but at the same time the picture doesn’t shy away from the dangers of ghetto life.
Underachieving pseudo-intellectual Leroy “Preach” Jackson (Glynn Turman) and swaggering basketball prodigy Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) know that unless they get bold or lucky, if not both, they could end up working in dead-end jobs like so many of the adults in their neighborhood, and they’re also painfully aware of the prevalence of street-level crime among their peers. Yet they’re still testosterone-crazed adolescents, so they think they’ve got the world figured out, they’re big on breaking rules, and they feel invincible. By focusing on universal coming-of-age rituals like joyriding in cars, skipping school, and trying to make time with pretty girls, Monte creates characters to which anyone can relate, even as he integrates the countless ultra-specific details that make Cooley High a unique study of a vibrant subculture as it existed for a fleeting moment in time.
Turman is incredibly appealing, communicating that special mixture of arrogance and insecurity that distinguishes young men trying to carve out their own identities, and he’s also very funny, especially when his character tries to manage a complicated love life. Preach has a thing going on with Sandra (Christine Jones), a classmate who won’t let him get very far, but then he falls wildly in love with Brenda (Cynthia Davis), a gorgeous girl who rebuffs his advances until she discovers his interest in poetry. Cochise, on the other hand, is the guy every teenage boy wants for a best friend—a popular jock who’s always ready for an adventure, a fight, or a prank. Hilton-Jacobs, who later achieved fame as a regular on the sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter, offers a tart counterpoint to Turman’s sweetness.
Cooley High is filled with memorable scenes and characters, like the zaftig greasy-spoon proprietor who chases troublesome kids out of her place by brandishing a cleaver, and the story advances from high jinks to melodrama in a graceful fashion. So in addition to being one of the most important black films of the ’70s—an authentic, sensitive change of pace from the demeaning sleaze of blaxploitation—it’s one of the best pictures about teen life to emerge from any era.
Cooley High: RIGHT ON