|Directed by||Michael Schultz|
|Produced by||Steve Krantz|
|Written by||Eric Monte|
|Music by||Freddie Perren|
|Box office||$13 million|
Cooley High (1975), directed by Michael Schultz, is a Blaxploitation comedic drama that follows the narrative of high school seniors and best-friends, Leroy “Preach” Jackson (Glynn Turman) and Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs). Written by Eric Monte, and produced by American International Pictures (AIP), the film, primarily shot in Chicago, Illinois, was a major hit at the box offices, grossing in at $13,000,000 (USD). The light-hearted and entertaining storyline captivated viewers with its portrayal of carefree best-friends, and its exciting soundtrack featuring the smash hit Baby Love by The Supremes, among many other Motown hits. However, despite the initially fun-filled narrative, the film takes a serious turn as it delves into discussions about masculinity and sexism, gang violence, and the value of education in the black community.
Set in 1964 Chicago, best-friends Preach and Cochise are in full-swing celebrating the final weeks of their senior year at Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School. After a day of sneaking onto city trains and buses without paying, and antagonizing animals at the local zoo, the duo binges on alcohol before heading off to a house party that ends abruptly when Cochise gets into a fight over a girl. Having trashed the house during the scuffle, Cochise and Preach leave to go for a joyride with fellow classmates and honorary bad boys, Stone and Robert – an act that will prove to be ill-fated. After being arrested at school the next day, Mr. Mason, their history teacher, persuades the police to release Preach and Cochise because of their clean record. Unfortunately, Stone and Robert remain imprisoned due to their being repeat offenders. Immediately after being released from jail a few days later, the vengeful Stone and Robert hunt down Preach and Cochise. In a climactic ending, after being cornered on a side street, Cochise is beaten to a bloody pulp, and left for dead. Having been notified of Cochise’s attack, Preach frantically searches the streets, only to discover his best-friend’s lifeless body lying face down under an overpass. Using Cochise’s untimely death as motivation, after the funeral Preach runs off to go make his dreams of becoming a renowned Hollywood poet a reality – ultimately making him and his newfound guardian angel proud.
Important Cast Members
- Glynn Turman as Preach
- Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Cochise
- Cynthia Davis as Brenda
- Sherman Smith as Stone
- Norman Gibson as Robert
- Garrett Morris as Mr. Mason
- Corin Rogers as Pooter
- Joseph Carter Wilson as Tyrone
- Maurice Marshall as Damon
- Steven Williams as Jimmy Lee
- Christine Jones as Sandra
- Jackie Taylor as Johnny Mae
- Juanita McConnell as Martha
Monte based the film on his experiences from attending the real-life Cooley Vocational High School (which is no longer standing) that served students from the Cabrini–Green public housing projects in Chicago. While the film was set in and around Cabrini–Green, it was primarily filmed at another Chicago-area housing project. Monte has said he wrote the film to dispel myths about growing up in the projects: "I grew up in the Cabrini–Green housing project and I had one of the best times of my life, the most fun you can have while inhaling and exhaling".
Masculinity and Sexism
In addition to highlighting the various fun-filled moments of Preach’s and Cochise’s friendship, the film also depicts their complicated love lives – illustrating their problematic views of women as being disposable sex objects. As a notable basketball star, Cochise has always been in the company of beautiful women, and as his best-friend, Preach has always had the benefit of being a quasi-lady’s man by association. However, despite the plethora of girls who flock to and swoon over the duo, Preach and Cochise initially have their eyes set on two women in particular – Sandra and Johnny Mae, respectively. In a somewhat explicit scene, Preach and Cochise are in the stairwell of an apartment building, passionately kissing their girlfriends whom they have pressed firmly against the wall. In what appears to be an effort to assert their masculinity, the boys repeatedly try to initiate sex with the girls by feeling on their breasts while simultaneously lifting up their dresses. Although JohnnyMae is welcoming of Cochise’s advances, Sandra continues to swat away Preach’s roaming hands. After failing to convince Sandra to have sex with him, a frustrated Preach reluctantly ceases his advances and stands by awkwardly as Cochise and Johnny Mae continue their romantic encounter.
Although this scene lasts no more than three minutes, it is a prime example of the sexist undertones displayed throughout the film. Essentially, Preach and Cochise use the frequency of their sexual encounters as a way to validate their masculinity. This is likely why Preach becomes so incredibly frustrated when Sandra repeatedly rejects his advances – her vehement rejection insults his manhood. Additionally, the fact that Cochise and Johnny Mae, whose encounter is going smoothly, are witnesses to his failure makes him even more embarrassed. Ultimately, his inability to convince Sandra to have sex makes him appear to be an incompetent male whose masculinity has been compromised. In the eyes of Preach and Cochise, manhood is directly correlated to a man's sexual prowess. Thus, having been shunned by Sandra, Preach abandons her and begins lusting after another woman named Brenda. Initially, Brenda does not find Preach to be the least bit attractive, but after successfully winning her over, the two become an official couple. It is important to note, however, that Preach has failed to properly and explicitly end his romance with Sandra prior to dating Brenda – thus, he is essentially dating both women at the same time. Nonetheless, in an effort to repair his damaged masculinity, Preach makes a monetary bet with Cochise that he will have sex with Brenda, who is a virgin. Preach makes good on his word, but subsequently upsets Brenda after letting it slip that she was a part of his bet.
Furthering the prevalence of sexism in the movie, Preach's inconsideration of Brenda's feelings illustrates how the maintenance of his masculinity is at the expense of her humanity. Simply put, by dismissing Brenda as just another number that he adds to his tallying of sexual encounters, Preach is basing her existence solely on her ability to please him sexually. Additionally, in a scene that precedes Cochise's ill-fated demise, Preach becomes enraged after abruptly walking in on Cochise and Sandra passionately kissing. Ironically, after cheating on Sandra with Brenda, Preach is upset, not because he is genuinely hurt by the betrayal, but because he feels that Cochise has stolen one of his possessions. Despite abandoning Sandra because of her refusal to have sex with him, Preach still feels as if Sandra belongs to him. As his former love interest, Preach owns Sandra, and no other man, especially not his best friend, is to ever attempt to take what is his. Furthermore, Cochise has committed the ultimate act of betrayal by asserting his own masculinity at the expense of Preach's masculinity. Ultimately, this illustrates how neither of them is genuinely concerned with the damaging effects that their actions have on Sandra. After seeing how upset Preach is, Sandra is abandoned once again, illustrating how she is merely a pawn in their game of masculinity.
In a somewhat climactic scene, while at a movie theater watching Godzilla, a brawl erupts between two rival street gangs. The violent outburst is caused by a gaffe made by Preach's and Cochise's friend, Pooter, after he accidentally steps on the shoes of a gang leader. Relatively small in size, the gang member begins antagonizing Pooter for his mishap. Yet, coming to Pooter's defense, a rival gang member, seated one row above, challenges the bully to "pick on someone [his] own size." Thus, in a matter of minutes the theater is in a frenzy after both gangs begin violently attacking one another.
This scene, though slightly graphic in nature, helps to shine some much needed light onto the truth behind gang violence. Up until Pooter's mistake, the two rival gangs had been sitting in close proximity to one another in a relatively peaceful accord. In fact, throughout majority of the time while watching the movie, there appeared to be not even the slightest bit of hostility between them. However, once one of the leaders intervened on Pooter's behalf, everything quickly escalated. The depiction of the brawl illustrates how gang violence places innocent bystanders and ordinary civilians in grave danger. As the fight grew in size—each gang had roughly fifteen members present—fellow moviegoers desperately tried to exit the theater. Unfortunately, due to the packed room being dimly lit, many people fell victim to the violence. Even worse, as more people became involved, the fight spilled into a neighboring auditorium, which jeopardized an even larger crowd.
In a similar, yet more explicit, way, the attack on Cochise by Stone, Robert, and Damon illustrates the true gravity of violence. Although they are never explicitly linked to gang activity in the movie (both actors who played Stone and Robert were real-life gang members), the trio who murders Cochise are undoubtedly, extremely violent characters. For starters, Damon gets into a physical altercation with Cochise in the beginning of the movie after he sees the ball-playing lady's man dancing with his girlfriend. As yet another example of how violence places innocent people in danger, during the fight, Cochise and Damon completely destroy the home that the house party is taking place in. In addition to knocking over large bookshelves and dressers, the feuding boys also break lamps and dishes, causing shards of glass to fly through the air. Once the fight ends, the two boys promptly leave the premises, leaving the hostess of the party to figure out how to repair all of the extensive damage that has just been done.
At the height of the movie, Stone, Robert, and Damon take turns kicking and punching the outnumbered Cochise throughout various parts of his body. Visibly weak, and on the brink of losing consciousness, Damon delivers the fatal blow: a punch to the jaw that sends Cochise's head crashing into a nearby pole. Even as his lifeless body lays sprawled on the ground, Damon kicks Cochise in the stomach before running off after realizing that he has just committed a murder. Although the attack occurs under an overpass, there are still taxis and people walking on the main street nearby. Thus, the fact that no one caught wind of the attack is interesting. On one hand, it shows how strategically secretive "gang members" are when they plan their attacks. On the other hand, however, it hints at the fact that because of the prevalence of gang violence, many people have started to turn a blind eye to violence as a result of their becoming desensitized.
Value of Education
Shortly after being released from jail, history teacher, Mr. Mason, confronts Preach about his lack of ambition and his overall apathy towards his studies. As a high school senior aspiring to become a famous Hollywood poet, Preach does not understand the value of attaining a decent education. Despite graduation being two weeks away, the carefree Preach continuously skips school to hang out with friends and to gamble at local burger joints. However, when approached by Mr. Mason, Preach finally begins to see the importance of taking his education seriously. After vehemently declaring that "[he] [wants] to live," Preach decides that it's time for him to really apply himself so that he can escape the restricting confines of his working class community.
The sentiments expressed by both Mr. Mason and Preach reflect the advantages that acquiring a decent education can have. Aside from cultivating athletic abilities in the hopes of becoming a professional athlete, working class youth are generally encouraged to invest in education in order to build a better future. Furthermore, once they have become educated, it is then their responsibility to help the next person. Essentially, education is the only reliable tool that has the ability to improve the black community for generations down the road. Thus, at the close of the movie, we discover that Preach does in fact achieve his goal of becoming a successful Hollywood writer/poet.
During the 40th anniversary of the film's release, nationally syndicated news station NPR covered a story that discussed some of the fondest memories that fellow cast and crew members shared of the film's production. For starters, actor Rick Stone, who played the character of Stone in the film, recalled how he was approached by producers of the film while playing basketball one day. The crew members were looking for realistic gang members to be a part of the cast, so after being tipped off by police, producers offered Stone and his sidekick Norman Gibson, who played the character of Robert in the film, a role in the movie.
During this interview, screenwriter Eric Monte revealed that Cochise's untimely death in the film was inspired by a childhood friend of his who had been killed in a similar manner. Furthermore, just as Preach headed to Hollywood after the death of Cochise, Monte reveals that after his friend was murdered he hitchhiked his way to the west coast where he began working for shows such as Good Times and The Jeffersons.
Unfortunately, not everyone from the film went on to live a life of success. Nearly two years after the film's release, Norman Gibson was gunned down outside of his neighborhood.
Cooley High was a critical and commercial success. Produced on a $750,000 budget, the film grossed $13 million at the domestic box office, making it one of the top 30 highest grossing films of 1975. The film holds an 82% "Fresh" rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes.
Filmmaker Spike Lee included the film on his essential film list entitled List of Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See. The movie also ranked #23 on Entertainment Weekly's list of the 50 Best High School Movies.
ABC planned a television adaptation of Cooley High, but the pilot was poorly received, and Fred Silverman, the head of the network, asked the pilot's producers, TOY Productions, to redo the show as a sitcom with new characters and with a new title so as not to confuse it with Monte's film Cooley High. New writers were hired, cast changes made, and a switch from one-camera to three-camera filming delivered What's Happening!! to the network, where it ran from August 5, 1976 to April 28, 1979. The show and the production company were then purchased by Columbia Pictures Television in 1979 and ran in syndication for a number of years.[when?]
Release on DVD & HD
- The dime-store way to make movies-and money By Aljean Harmetz. The New York Times, (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 04 Aug 1974: 202.
- Box Office Information for Cooley High. Worldwide Box Office. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
- Mankiewicz, Ben. Comments on TCM broadcast 17 October 2013
- "40 Years Later, The Cast Of 'Cooley High' Looks Back". NPR.org. Retrieved 2016-05-06.
- "Top Grossing Films of 1975". Listal.com.
- Cooley High, Movie Reviews. Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
- List of Films All Aspiring Filmmakers Must See. Indiewire. Retrieved January 27, 2016.
- "The 50 Best High School Movies". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved February 11, 2009.
- Closs, Wyatt (February 27, 2014). "Erykah Badu Reveals All About Her 'Lo Down Loretta Brown' Persona". Huffington Post.