‘Cooley High’ remembered on the 40th anniversary of release

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Gary Susman of moviefone.com called it the most influential movie you’ve never seen and NPR’s Derek John referred to it as a classic of black cinema. The accolades and remembrances of the hit 1975 film, “Cooley High,” continue to pour in during the 40th anniversary of its release.

“Cooley High ought to be remembered as a cinema milestone, and its writer and director remembered as pioneers,” Susman said in paying homage to the film that starred Glynn Turman as “Preach,” Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as “Cochise,” and Garrett Morris as “Mr. Mason.”

To help mark the anniversary, a private V.I.P. reception and re-screening of the iconic film took place in Chicago where the film was shot. Many of the cast members, including Hilton-Jacobs and Robert Townsend, attended the highly anticipated event.

“What a great reunion for ‘Cooley High.’ Everybody who attended was very pleased, enjoyed themselves and they thought that it was well-done and put together nicely,” Colostine Boatwright, who had a small role in the film, told Soultrain.com.

“There was joy, love and togetherness in the room. It was a job well done. Even though ‘Preach’ wasn’t there, we still had Townsend who stepped right in,” Boatwright said. “You see what we can do when put egos aside? I’m really hoping that out of this, something comes. We are all still here. We haven’t given up.”

Susman said the movie should be celebrated for its vast influence on movies, TV, and music. As a young-men-coming-of-age movie, it deserves to be mentioned alongside Fellini’s “I Vitelloni,” George Lucas’s “American Graffiti,” Barry Levinson’s “Diner,” and John Singleton’s Boyz N the Hood,” Susman said.

The story behind “Cooley High” is even more dramatic than the comedy-drama that unspooled on the screen. It’s the story of Kenneth Williams, who, like protagonist Preach, left Chicago’s Cabrini-Green projects with dreams of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.

Having dropped out of high school, he hitchhiked from the Windy City to Hollywood with $5 in his pocket and no connections, and for a while he supported himself selling drugs. However, the aspiring writer, who renamed himself Eric Monte, also befriended actor Mike Evans, who had been cast as neighbor Lionel Jefferson on the groundbreaking sitcom “All in the Family.”

Through Evans, Monte pitched the show’s producer, Norman Lear, a script introducing the characters of Lionel’s parents, George and Louise Jefferson. Lear bought the script and eventually spun off George, Weezy, and Lionel into their own hit sitcom, “The Jeffersons.” Evans and Monte co-created another sitcom for Lear, the hit “Good Times,” about a family struggling in a Chicago project much like the one where Monte grew up.

Susman said Monte still hungered to tell a story of black life in the Chicago projects that resembled his own experience, which he characterized as fun and not just gritty. The result was the screenplay for “Cooley High,” which he sold to American International Pictures, an independent studio then known for drive-in fare and exploitation pictures. “But, ‘Cooley High’ was no exploitation film. Unlike the other black stories being told on screen in the early ‘70s, this one wasn’t about crime, racism, drugs, vengeance, or black-power heroes and heroines who stuck it to the Man,” Susman said.

It was just about teens doing what teens do— hanging out, going to school, going to parties, hooking up, cruising the streets, and dreaming of the future.

“Yes, there was petty crime and some tragic violence, but they weren’t the main focus of the story,” he said. “It was just a slice of life, both specific and universal. As a result, ‘Cooley High’ marked the beginning of the shift in African-American cinema away from blaxploitation toward more diverse stories of black life, although it would take another 20 years for that transition to be fully realized.”

The full version of Cooley High is available on You Tube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiTqOXHrKzc