New On Blu: COOLEY HIGH (1975) — Still Highly Cool

Cooley High makes it Blu-ray debut on April 21 from Olive Films.

I would guess that for my generation, the most probable introduction to Cooley High came from its obvious influence on Boyz II Men, who not only titled their mega-multiplatinum debut album Cooleyhighharmony but famously covered the film’s closing theme song “Its So Hard To Say Goodbye To Yesterday”, giving it a major mainstream revival.

The boys/men had a good point because Cooley High is a really wonderful film.

Like Across 110th Street and Amazing Grace, Michael Schultz’s Cooley High often gets lumped into the blaxploitation conversation simply because it’s a black movie from the 1970s, or because it was produced by genre powerhouse AIP, but it’s not an exploitative film in any sense that I would classify the word. It’s simply a really well-made, resonant film that tells an urban coming of age story through a mix of drama and comedy.

Cooley High follows the high school exploits of a group of boys attending (or more often than not absent from) north Chicago’s Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School in the early 60s. The film focuses mainly on two boys, Leroy “Preach” Jackson (Glynn Turman) and his best friend Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and chronicles their experiences including school, truancy, horseplay, petty crimes, partying, drinking, smoking pot, flirting with girls, seeking love, and avoiding their concerned teacher, Mr. Mason (SNL alum Garrett Morris, better known to today’s audiences as Earl on 2 Broke Girls). They’re not bad kids per se, but do get into a heap of mischief.

Cooley High reflects the semi-autobiographical experiences of writer Eric Monte, who is reflected in the character of Preach. Preach is a unique young man, gifted with a sharp mind and a poet’s soul. He tends to be the smartest guy in the room, but due to a combination of laziness, frustration, and peer pressure, he slacks off at school and does poorly in his classes. In this way he is perhaps a prototype of Max Fischer in Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, who shares the same personality type. His pal Cochise and other friends don’t take school seriously, resigned to a hood mentality of either getting athletic scholarships or squeaking by through life working in menial jobs like their parents. The more I reflect on this film, the more I am convinced that this “hood mentality” is its antagonist.

Preach is aware of his situation: his friends are genuine homies, but they also drag him down. At one point he bellows out his frustrations at them, “You guys think it’s so funny because I want to be something besides a factory worker or a football player. Well, that’s because you’re a bunch of stupid niggers that don’t know shit!”. Having said his piece, the moment of offense passes and is quickly brushed off as the group enjoys a bottle of wine together.

The film has a lot of rich visual and narrative reflections on the era as well as on race and urban poverty. Though released in 1975, it takes place in 1964, with the benefit of a decade’s worth of historical context in which to frame the era. It was a volatile and uncertain time, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. In one particularly poignant scene, Preach’s mom, who works three jobs, comes home late at night to reports of his latest misdemeanors and threatens to discipline him, only to fall asleep in her chair.

I humbly admit to being surprised by some other historical reflections shown the film, such as the casually fraternal use of the word “nigger” and the pouring out of liquor “for the brothers who ain’t here”, only because I assumed these were more recent cultural developments of my own lifetime and had no idea they went back so far. And while we’re on the subject of culture, also worth mentioning is a memorable Motown soundtrack that suits the film well.

A problem with many (other) nostalgic teenage delinquency films of this kind is that they lack a moral counterbalance. The belief is that kids will be kids, and their mischief is justified by their age. Misbehavior is held up as an entitlement of youth. I wouldn’t say that the film explicitly endorses or opposes the behavior of its subjects so much as show their experiences, but it does engage in one critical respect: it reveals consequences.

Preach and Cochise accept an opportunity to go on a joyride in a car stolen by a couple of older criminal peers, which turns into a police chase and ends in a crash. While they are interrogated by the police, it’s Mr. Mason who entreats on their behalf. What a beautiful character and counterpoint to the “hood mentality” Mr. Mason is — the boys only see him as a hard-ass history teacher, but he genuinely cares for them and wants to see them succeed. He later has a conversation with Preach in which he begs the young man not to waste the sharp mind with which he’s been blessed. Preach dismisses his concerns, but one almost wonders if the film itself was Monte’s response to a real-life version of this conversation.

The Package

Per Olive’s usual method of offering lesser-known films in no-frills editions, additional features are neither offered or expected. Although in this case, Cooley High is a better known film which could have benefited from more supplemental features.

The disc comes housed in a flat-spined Blu-ray case and features a handsome minimalistic two-tone cover. I like the artwork, but Cooley High’s original illustrated poster is such a classic piece of film art that I’m sad that it’s not present.

Olive’s release of Cooley High follows Amazing Grace as a dip into MGM’s “Soul Cinema” catalogue, and while I have yet to see a press release from Olive, I’ve heard indications that there’s a big push on the way that will make fans of that imprint very, very happy.

Special Features and Extras


A/V Out.

Get it at Amazon:
 [Blu-ray] | [DVD]

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