Billed as “the black American Graffiti “, Cooley High features a group of black teenagers in Chicago in 1964 – bonded by camaraderie and good times – as they stare down the final weeks of their senior year at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School.
While history professor Mr Mason (Garrett Morris of Saturday Night Live fame, who was a real-life teacher) tries to guide his students to success, high school senior and aspiring poet and writer LeRoy “Preach” Jackson (Glynn Turman) and his best friend, Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), a star basketball player with a college scholarship, are enjoying life during their last few weeks of school.
Preach and Cochise sneak out of class with their crew – including Pooter, the neighbourhood clown (15-year-old Corin Rogers).
They subsequently meet a pair of career criminals and get falsely arrested in connection with stealing a Cadillac, with incident after incident leading to a terrible (and avoidable) tragedy.
The range of emotions in Cooley High is impressive. Bumping up against a tender, first-romance sequence is a cook with a meat cleaver chasing kids who are shooting dice in her lunchroom. And there’s a wild dance party at which the kids chip in 25 cents at the door for food (a “quarter party”), and the young hostess prays there isn’t a fight and nobody knocks over her mother’s new china cabinet.
For a movie billed as a comedy, it’s a surprisingly heavy trip. There’s a terrible scene in which Preach comes home late from a wild night, and his mother’s waiting for him. She’s a big woman, and she’s upset. She complains she’s working three jobs to support Preach and her other two children.
But she falls asleep exhausted on a kitchen chair before she can finish bawling him out.
And there are no fathers in Cooley High. We don’t see a single one.
With authentic performances and classic Motown hits, this AIP picture – written by Eric Monte (creator of TV’s Good Times) and apparently mostly autobiographical – is one of Black cinema’s most influential films.
ABC planned to make a TV series based on the movie, but after a poorly received pilot, they retooled it completely – What’s Happening!! (1976) was the result.
LeRoy “Preach” Jackson
Richard “Cochise” Morris
Maurice Leon Havis
Joseph Carter Wilson