Written By | Harvey Pullings, II
The impact of the Black film movement of the 1970s, commonly known as the Blaxploitation era – is a critical period for cinema, having been covered several times for its ripple effect within Hollywood’s historically selective legacy. So much of the film movement’s criticisms focus on the exploitive content of pimps, gangsters, and prostitutes, as well as the unjustly blanket terming of the films’ genres as simply blaxploitation, having robbed so many films of legitimacy and the ability to offer a significant look at yesteryears’ culture of Black Americans and creatives. However, for the Coming-of-Age genre, Cooley High is one of those unfortunate gems lost to Black cinema’s collective listing.
As a title and property, Cooley is not completely unheard of and has a prevalent presence within the Black community. It has been referenced in Hip-Hop, R&B (ie. Boyz II Men’s first album, CooleyHighHarmony), and is the inspiration for the classic 70s sitcom, What’s Happening. However, this reputation is knowledgeable amidst the Black community – which ultimately renders the film at best as a niche project. This is not a foreign concept within the world of art but considering the unique traits of Cooley High during its time of release and its impact on the future of inner-city narratives; the film deserves much more praise and acknowledgement.
Cooley High takes place in 1964, near the Chicago Northside. The film follows the exploits of best friends, Leroy “Preach” Jackson – a bright student and aspiring writer, and Richard “Cochise” Morris – an all-city Basketball player. Both attend Cooley Vocational (a then real school in Chicago), and with their group of friends, skip class, get into juvenile hijinks around their neighborhood, sexual conquests and other activities before an evening of joy riding gets them into danger with the police and some local level criminals.
Screenwriter Eric Monte based the story of Cooley on his experiences growing up in Chicago, counter arguing the universal perspective of Black youths being consistently portrayed in a negative light. The film carries a lighthearted tone, which allows these Black characters to exist in the morality landscape of the Coming-of-Age drama, rather than the bleak and brutal realities of the “Hood film,” which would come 20 years later. Cooley High was released the during a period where the identity of the city as a trope, was under a very big microscope. Most movies of the 1970s, portrayed urbanic life as gritty, violent, nihilistic, and often cynical – which in so many ways were a response to both Hollywood’s strong bearing of censorship and conservative decorum during its Golden Era, as well as the intense landscape of America’s then social climate. Blaxploitation in theory was meant to explore the depths of Black storytelling but had sadly gotten caught in the webs of profit and studio formula. Films consistently featured harsh stereotypes, with style being emphasized over substance. Cooley High released in 1975 amidst narratives that forgot they were to exist within a genre, and not just a film movement. The teenage characters of the film are humanized and are more so comparable to the young men in previous era films like 1938’s Angels with Dirty Faces or 1997’s Good Will Hunting, where the morality of each character’s life choices, were the central elements of the story – rather than the desire to stereotype a group based on headlines.
In many retrospect, there is a lot of Cosby Show and A Different World characterization in this world, that lend itself to observations, rather criticisms over how the people of the film are presented.
Deviancy and urban culture are explored rather than criticized and portrayed as undesirable, definitive of a specific group..
Preach and Cochise wander the impoverished sections of Chicago, filled with alley ways, boarded windows, and street toughs – yet manages to still feel like a home, rather than a communal prison. The boys are young and while mischievous, they each show potential and dreams that are bigger than the neighborhood they dwell in. Cochise gets selected for a scholarship to play basketball at Grambling State University, and Preach aspires to be a writer, showing great interest in poetry and various curriculums when he isn’t running the streets. This is by all standards a Coming-of-Age tale, where the city is a place for these characters to exist, but not within the expectations of the Blaxploitation movement. Humor is prevalent, and the subtleties of conflict are never overbearing. The latter being especially important, as the tragedy of the film’s ending greatly highlights what the Blaxploitation movement could have been for so many filmmakers. A platform to showcase storytelling outside of White America’s biased views and understanding of a marginalized community.
Each year, several films are acknowledged on the internet’s overuse of Top Lists, to discuss films briefly and create a sense of relevancy for a current era, wrapped up in an oversaturation of media. Most of the “lists” cover several films as a means to collectively write thought pieces that level out to a full body of an article and do very little in explaining their placement. Because of this, several films are marginalized based on the inability to write and discuss this medium with pose and objective criticisms. Cooley High will remain a Blaxploitation or simply a Black film, because of the inability to criticize why it is so much more than that.
Cooley’s legacy exists as one of the early narratives of Black cinema within the inner city, where the experiences of the characters were lighthearted and engaging – outside of the expectation for exploitive, tragedy-based storytelling. This film, as well as Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep – showed audiences that stories of Black people can exist with them being three dimensional characters and not biased archetypes, even if the landscape is harsher and less polished than the White American backdrops of suburbia. It was a genuine testament to what the Black Film Movement of the 70s could have been, and what the actual people were and continue to be all along.