Cooley High (1975)
American International Pictures
Directed by Michael Schultz
Produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, Steve Krantz
Written by Eric Monte
Cinematography by Paul Vombrack
Edited by Christopher Holmes
It’s been called “The Black American Graffiti,” which is only moderately accurate and a mostly unfair comparison, but it is something of a starting point. While writer Eric Monte certainly could have been influenced by American Graffiti (released in 1973), Cooley High, doesn’t feel like a ripoff.
The film is set in 1964 in and around Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School in Philadelphia. The poetry-loving Leroy “Preach” Jackson (Glynn Turman, right) and his basketball star best friend Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, left) and the rest of their buddies cut class, drink cheap wine in alleys, and crash parties. They aren’t bad kids; they certainly don’t have the same opportunities as the kids in American Graffiti and we get the sense that a big mistake in the Cooley High world could cost you a lot more than it would in the American Graffiti world. The first half of the movie is mostly fun-and-games as Michael Schultz establishes character and delivers some hilarious scenes, the best of which involves a fight that breaks out at a theater showing a Godzilla movie.
At a certain point, the fun-and-games stop as Preach and Cochise both begin looking ahead to the future. Cochise – a talented basketball star – is focused on college basketball and after that, maybe even the pros. In Preach’s case, he wants to go to Hollywood to be a screenwriter…if he graduates high school. But one night the two friends make a bad decision that affects everything else that happens. Monte and Schultz surprise us by showing that – even in a comedy film – actions have consequences.
Cooley High has a lot going for it: loads of talent from its young cast, a great soundtrack, a little romance, some great laughs and a nice performance by Garrett Morris (above, middle) – just before the start of his Saturday Night Live career – as a teacher who genuinely cares about the kids he teaches.
Cooley High contains several good moments, but unfortunately the film is about 15 minutes too long, most of which includes scenes establishing the boys’ carefree lifestyle, scenes that go on for too long. Pacing and some believability issues near the end become problematic, but the movie has a definite charm. It’s also an important film that captures a time and a cultural moment, showing that just because the cast is all-black, it doesn’t have to be an exploitation film.
Kudos to Olive Films for releasing Cooley High on DVD and Blu-ray. Anyone interested in African American cinema (or 70s movies in general) should definitely check this out.