Cooley High (1975) —More than the Black American Grafitti
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we follow Michael Schultz and Eric Monte back to their youth in the mid-60s for a romp through Chicago black youth culture in those stolen moments before anything really mattered, when we could all live forever. From 1975, it’s Cooley High, one of the first movies of its type! Let’s dive on in!
Funny how things shake out sometimes. I’ll put down good money Samuel Z. Arkoff of American International Pictures heard one of his producers wanted to finance a script about black youth running amuck in Chicago and probably thought he’d get something akin to the blaxploitation pictures his studio churned out across the early 70s, the big action classics like Coffy and Black Caesar and Sugar Hill, cheap ’n’ easy fare whose modern reputations as cult classics wasn’t quite fully entrenched. The studio, after all, thrived on exploitation fare, had since their earliest days in the 1950s with Roger Corman turning out entire movies on posters and titles before plots or scripts were writ. A generous read which considers Arkoff might’ve greenlit the project in hopes of scoring an American Grafitti of his own rather than another Sweet Sweetback wannabe with Beach Party appeal still undersells the impact Cooley High eventually wove over the American cinematic landscape. When Steve Krantz (fresh off the two Fritz the Cat films) picked called struggling Chicago-born TV writer Eric Monte (fresh off work on the Fritz sequel and an unhappy stint creating Good Times) to refine a screenplay about his experiences in and around the Cabrini-Green housing project with up-and-comer director Michael Schultz (fresh from working his ass off in Broadway and television to get movie gigs like this), I doubt the studio boss had the tiniest inkling he’d opened the doors for a decades-long flood of dramedies reflecting on black youth’s experiences that would become a major cornerstone of audience and critics’ diets across all levels of Hollywood production. Goes to show, sometimes all it takes to change an artform’s landscape is someone with money and means taking a chance on a new concept and creators they might not entirely understand.
On the film itself: it’s fascinating to look back on the halcyon days of a youth and find their surroundings so dingy and dilapidated. One is rarely privileged enough to grow up around the latest and greatest, living in houses of pristine Hollywood sheen where everyone’s pretty as you please and the wear of living isn’t at all evident upon the walls. Watch Cooley High, even understanding the film’s look as consequence of filming on a tight-fisted AIP budget in Chicago before city officials warmed up to film productions as a major economy booster, there’s something interesting in this Motown-driven reflection on mid-60s teenaged indiscretions looking so urban and ordinary. We’re rarely in any bad part of town where the truly poor live, but protagonists Preach (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) call cramped quarters defined by lack of privacy home, spend their days hanging out in back alleys and under bridges, meet local waywards to shoot dice in back of a restaurant that hasn’t seen a proper scrubbing in a long whiles, attend a school whose real world grander accommodations are ignored in favor of the minimally furnished older halls and classrooms. Those spaces marked by signs of higher-class living are similarly only presented from less than cinematically-flattering angles — a fancy Caddy evading police in a quarter-finished construction site, a trip to the zoo narrowed down to mucking around outside a gorilla’s spartan cage, parties at a better-off classmate’s house shot to emphasize the place’s shortcomings before it’s eventually trashed in the midst of a macho dick-measuring contest. Here are the glory days, those lost basketball days and high nights to the tunes of “Baby Love” and “Mickey’s Monkey” and “Beechwood 4–5789,” found in what’s ultimately just a slightly grimy, used, everyday city.
Course, it’s not halcyon days in the sense of WHERE we came from, no pining for a lost golden meadow and the sight of stars on a clear dark night. Irrespective what mid-70s Chicago standing in for mid-60s Chicago looked like, we’re pining for those days on the cusp of transformation, when boys dreaming of lives as men of poetic significance or athletic greatness could still wild out and do whatever they please without a thought to how they’d reach their aspirations. The ordinary inner city or Paradise USA, what matters is the unrestrained hilarity when a nerdy tagalong friend got pegged with gorilla shit while cutting class, joshing your buddy for jokingly pouring out libations to the dead when you all just wanted a taste of the wine you didn’t think tasted so good anyhow, gripping the car seat in equal fear and exhilaration as a dork who bullshitted his way behind the wheel by bragging too much about driving experience you know he didn’t have somehow tricked pursuing cops into getting caught on a forklift and spirited you away scot free right into another parked car. Playing hooky, shooting dice, getting into fights, running away from trouble, watching dumb movies, going to parties, treating the whole world like it’s all there for the taking; the Alexander deLarge philosophy divorced from any true nastiness or malicious intent. There’s the memory of confidently boasting you’re gonna be one of the all timers in your passion and the pincushion puncture when someone who snatched your private poetry read out those embarrassing passages about your “throbbing manhood,” making moves on the icy self-confident girl (Cynthia Davis) until she finally agreed to go under the covers and seemed all into you until you choose the wrong moment to casually mention a bet over whether or not she’d screw you, picking up extra money for the movies by conning some prostitutes with a fake badge and casing them much as you can before they realized the scam ’n’ chased you off. It is, admittedly, not quite so universal a hangout for remembrance as its loose structure and casual tone might like when these cast casual sexual assault as a “boys will be boys” matter, but we are here for analytic cause. We note the morals around what’s acceptable in the landscape of adolescence have changed, shake our heads some that so bright and positive a film was snagged some in the culture shift, and move on understanding these are dealbreakers on a viewer-by-viewer basis.
Besides, it isn’t as if Schultz and Monte are unaware why these long-lost days of yore were lost in the first place. They had to be lost so we could become who we are now, and if we didn’t say goodbye to yesterday when and as we did, the price gouged out our flesh would be too high. Fun as it is to watch Preach and Cochise run about in a chaotic display of the young believing themselves immortal and eternal, their center cannot hold when they get into the actual criminal activity of hijacking and joyriding, and their inability to recognize just how lucky they are when their teacher Mr. Mason (Garrett Morris) bails them out costs dearly. Neither considers there’s any real danger when Mason tries to set them straight and force them to confront the paradox of carrying such promise yet putting it to such bone-headed ends, his genuine concern for their well-being only appreciated insofar as he kept them out of jail and free to do what they like. Preach doesn’t think the loose street toughs (Sherman Smith and Norman Gibson) they left in the slammer are any serious threat even after they corner him in the one occupied bathroom of his favorite hangout spot in an attempt to have his head over the misguided idea he sold them out for his freedom, going right back on his merry way once the owner (Juanita McConnell) chases them off. The boy dodges any serious consequence for his arrest because his mother’s simply too tired from working all day to hand out any beatings, and goes about his business only moderately bothered about getting to Cochise and warning him about the thugs out for blood. The world remains this hyper-real place where a young man can do as he will, call himself the king of every kingdom he sees, mosey on according to his own timetable and never ever face the music… right up until Preach finds Cochise beaten to death beneath the L, with no one around to answer his wails for help.
Eventually the sun sets on halcyon days, and we either move to new fields or let it drag us to drown in endless night. Infinite as the expanse of those days seem when you’re not quite a child and not quite grown, uproarious as it is to throw back your head in laughter at all hours and brush the worries about tomorrow off your shoulder, in due time you’ve gotta square the circle. Your past and future selves cannot exist long in the same body, so visions of what you’ll one day do to escape the same dead-end fate as everyone else in your neighborhood must either be reflected in forward-thinking behavior, or else vanish as your surroundings take near-unshakable hold. We have our fun, but if we can’t recognize when it’s time for a change, that fun is all we’ll ever have, and it won’t be worth much in the long run.
Course, Cooley High doesn’t take half so melancholic a view of things as my waxing philosophical might imply. As a nostalgic hangout film in the shadow of American Graffiti it is naturally compelled to end with the good times’ passing and the protagonist reflecting on loss with closing title cards revealing how the just made it after high school and the unjust were cut short, yet what lingers of the film in cultural memory isn’t its downer ending and rumination on a young man’s sudden awakening to the necessity of growing up; it’s those free, high times of Turman and Hilton-Jacobs wilding long and free, riding the L to favorite hangouts and finding themselves not so hot with the ladies and pushing each other around like only true friends can. The film’s bittersweet pining for yesteryear is more sweet than bitter, the sense this could all last forever there in force until the very final reel, and even there Preach’s ode to his dead friend is capped with the booming comfort of recent National Recording Registry inductee “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” by the Four Tops. A soundtrack driven near-entirely by Motown’s best and brightest hits speaks to Cooley High’s true intentions, to reliving a past moment with all the carefree energy and idiot teenage antics high ’n’ mighty as they were once upon a time. If it ended and we lost something along the way, we gained so much more precious, valuable friends and experiences and wisdom on the paths trodden since, and nothing about the lives we live now or the tragedies we suffered as those days set means we have to relinquish our grip on those fond memories, treat them any less sacred as adults. That which was can always be in the rear view mirror, a time glimpsed in hindsight as we drive on, mixing our metaphors with the abandon of a wannabe poet trying to impress some friends on the road to who knows what or where. Just look over your shoulder — it’ll always be there.
(Two stray, free observations detached from the shorter-than-usual reflections. One: As with John Waters and Pink Flamingos, Schultz blithely soundtracked his film with whatever songs he thought fit and only worried about obtaining permission after the picture was 90% locked in post-production. I’m convinced whatever relationship he formed with Motown Records in the negotiation process played a big part in label founder Berry Gordy hiring Schultz a decade later to direct cult martial arts favorite The Last Dragon — tell me Sho Nuff isn’t a natural evolution of the vibes here into camp villainy, just try. The films share the same emphasis on inner city movie theatre culture as central setpieces to boot! Two, on a related note: Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this is the closest any Godzilla film has come to making the Registry. Unless some other picture I don’t know about features more footage than this movie’s clips of Mothra vs. Godzilla during the moviehouse makeout session, here’s the first time the Japanese kaiju icon has snuck his way into the closest thing we have to the American cinematic canon. Congratulations, Godzilla without a gattling gun strapped to!)
((Also, quite the appropriate film and focus to slip back into shorter articles on, because let me tell you, I’m feeling burnt to a crisp from hammering at twenty-plus minute reads for two years to minimal returns, regardless the schedule shuffles and numerous breaks over the time.))
And so we close another installment of allowing private struggles with emotional turmoil color our analysis! Best to turn it over to you lot and ask what you think — about Cooley High, about its cast and crew, about the cinema of black youth, AIP productions, anything! Hash it out in the comments and stay tuned for another Registry pic in two weeks! When we reconvene, it’s gonna be what some of the star’s peers call the single greatest recorded piece of standup in comedy history — from documentarian Jeff Margolis, it’s 1979’s Richard Pryor: Live in Concert, which you can currently stream on Netflix! Catch you then!
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