Cooley High

| April 21, 2015

No release I’ve personally reviewed from Olive films is as historically significant as their upcoming Blu-ray release of Michael Schultz’s Cooley High (1975). By my estimation, this puts it easily among the distributor’s top three most important releases, along with High Noon (1952) and Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Cooley High differs from those two genre pictures though in that the social significance of it lies not merely in allegorical subtext, but in its superficial trappings as a slice-of-life period piece about a very specific group of people living in a very specific time. Set in 1964, the film powerfully takes aim at common misconceptions the much of the rest of the world harbors about life for those living in Chicago’s housing projects.

Director Michael Schultz, who has since gone on to direct a lot of TV (including a handful of episode of DC’s Arrow), is probably better known for his work on the cult favorite, Berry’s Gordy’s The Last Dragon (1985), or perhaps even 1976’s Car Wash than for Cooley High. And that’s really a shame. For Cooley High is as seminal a work of African American cinema as a Boyz n the Hood (1991) or maybe even Do the Right Thing (1989). The major difference though is that its social commentary isn’t as consistently emotionally oppressive as those two pictures. Cooley High is instead an alternatingly joyous and heartbreaking picture about people really making the most of the hands they’ve been dealt, trying to be happy as they can be together.

Cooley High follows a group of high school students from Chicago’s Cooley Vocational High School as they go about their day-to-day lives. In doing so, it balances a sense of youthful self-exploration—not unlike that captured by Richard Linklater in Dazed and Confused (1993)—with a parting dose of distressing social commentary. The film explores the difficulties of rising above one’s station when hailing from housing projects, yet, without undermining that message, refreshingly manages to paints a picture of people who are happy with their friends and family in spite of any social injustices they may face. In fact, to give you a basic sense of the film’s tone throughout, Cooley High served as the inspiration for the ABC sitcom What’s Happening!! (1976-79), though the series is admittedly much lighter fare.

The bulk of the film follows best friends Preach and Cochise as they search for ways to skip class, get girls in bed, and generally avoid studying, as many high school students do. One of their exploits even finds them posing as cops to extort money from prostitutes, money they eventually use to get into a Godzilla movie. Of course, there they inadvertently start a riot, which I mention only because it notably prefigures the theater riot Schultz would go on to stage in The Last Dragon.

The boys’ station in life isn’t enough to dull their spirits. Being poor isn’t enough to quash their dreams. Preach, a poet, plots to move out to Hollywood to write (clearly a stand-in for screenwriter Eric Monte) and Cochise lands a college basketball scholarship. But they only take themselves half-seriously it seems, which their teacher Mr. Mason (Garrett Morris) knows could well be their downfall. And it’s in that realization about our characters, seeded in a secondary storyline, that the film manages to provide social commentary. It argues that, while poverty and race/class divisions may not be something people in Preach and Cochise’s positions let get them down as they persevere with help from family and friends, there are still ever-present social forces against which young men such as them must struggle every day. It’s an important African American film, it’s an important Chicago, and, I might add, it’s an important film for you to see if you have not already done so.

Cooley High is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Olive Films—discs boasting a stellar transfer that lets you see every detail of the 1970’s Chicago in which it was filmed in stunning detail. Sure, the disc lacks special features, but this one film that can hold its own without such things. Cooley High speaks volumes about the circumstances that resulted in its creation without ever having to have a single filmmaker put such things into words.

About the Author:

Jef is a writer and educator in Chicago, Illinois. He holds a degree in Media & Cinema Studies from DePaul University, but sometimes he drops it and picks it back up again. He's also the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com and is fueled entirely by coffee (as if you couldn't tell).
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