The year is 1964 and the place is a neighbourhood of Chicago where best friends Preacher (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) are in their final year of High School, not that they particularly appreciate their time in the establishment. Preach is a bright young man, and unlike many of his peers enjoys reading and even writing, but he is a poor student, preferring to learn about subjects his own way rather than in the way the teachers tell him to, but Chise is comfortable in the knowledge he can graduate and get to college on a basketball scholarship thanks to his excellence on the court. Nevertheless, the two boys have a habit of leading one another astray, and that will spell trouble...
Cooley High was the brainchild of Eric Monte, the writer who had grown up in the same projects he set this semi-autobiographical movie in: the Preacher character was obviously his surrogate in the plot. Monte had quite a life, with incredible ups and vertiginous downs, from creating megahit sitcoms in the seventies (that he nevertheless had to sue to gain his full credit on) to his later years when he truly suffered, homeless after blowing his fortune on crack and other poor choices. That would make a compelling movie in itself, but what we did have was this account of his earlier years when he was finding his place in the world, a mixture of comedy and serious drama, even a thriller element in the latter stages.
It was a film called the black American Graffiti at the time, purely because of its nineteen-sixties setting, the barrage of oldies on the soundtrack (that were not really that old by the standards of the day, but folks were already growing nostalgic about their pasts), and the loose, rambling nature of the narrative. We followed not only Preacher and Cochise but their friends as well, though that pair were the focus, which gave director Michael Schultz the excuse to serve up a Graffiti-style conclusion where we were informed in captions what had happened to the characters, though from a modern perspective we might be more interested in the fates of the actors, especially Cynthia Davis who played Brenda.
She was the girl Preach had his heart set on since not only was she good looking, she also knew what he was talking about when he wanted to discuss literature and poetry, though she proves difficult to win over, and once she is, even more difficult to hang onto thanks to his poor choice of words and fumbling relationship skills. But Davis only appeared in this movie and never made another, which lends her a mystique since she was obviously very capable, assists in crafting a memorable persona, but for whatever reason chose not to pursue the acting profession. Of course, the movies are full of "whatever happened to?", so maybe she genuinely did become a librarian with three kids in Atlanta as her caption at the end tells us. Overall, that may be the influence of nostalgia on the viewer talking.
Not that Monte was wholly invested in a pair of rose-tinted spectacles, as he was just as likely to bring up the bad times as he was the good. It's pretty funny when the leads and two ne'erdowell friends steal a car one night after a party, and it's filmed like an adventure that could have fit into one of those "it happened one night" comedies, but it's a sequence that has serious consequences, about as serious as it’s possible to be for a young man. Sure, the bit where a riot breaks out at a screening of a Godzilla movie was probably the closest this got to hilarious, but what you took away was more reflective and contemplative in a melancholy way, about what you had left behind in your past and what would never return. It was reminiscent of The Wanderers, which would happen along a few years after, and if not as accomplished as that other cult movie (the white Cooley High?), there was something to this that did not simply speak to those who had been through the same upbringing as Monte had. Well-acted throughout, notably comedian Garrett Morris as a wise schoolteacher, you could see why this continues to pick up fans. Music (not the scene-setting oldies) by Freddie Perren.