Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Cooley High

On the surface, Cooley High is chiefly remembered as the 'black American Graffiti' or the loose basis for the TV series "What's Happening!!," but it was far more than that. Set in 1964 in Chicago's infamous Cabrini-Green, Cooley High was a realistic, sometimes brutal, slice of life about growing up in those projects, but through all that it was also funny, poignant, and hopeful.

The film was written by Eric Monte who had grown up in Cabrini-Green and like Preach's character, had always wanted to be a writer. He moved to LA and hooked up with Mike Evans, then playing Lionel Jefferson on "All in the Family." Evans encouraged Monte to write leading to scripting jobs. Together, Evans and Monte would go on to develop both "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times," with the latter TV family actually living in Cabrini-Green.

Television proved too controlled and sanitized for Eric Monte however, so after recording hours of his growing up experiences in Chicago on tape, he wrote the screenplay to Cooley High. Glynn Turman, the fantastic actor from "The Wire," and currently "House of Lies," played the sixteen year old Preach at twenty-seven, and his best friend Cochise was portrayed by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, best known as Washington on "Welcome Back Kotter." Pre-SNL Garrett Morris played a teacher, but predominantly the rest of the cast was residents of Cabrini-Green where Cooley High was filmed.

That boost of reality from the people and locations of Chicago brought the childhood of Eric Monte alive. The cast was having fun, and living the story on screen. Nothing beats the zoo scene with the gorilla throwing feces, mostly because it was unscripted and really happened. And as a kaiju eiga fan, I absolutely love the sequence in the movie theater where Godzilla Vs. The Thing is playing. It is a perfect blending of action in the theater and on the screen.

Cooley High with its comedy, tragedy, good times and bad was set to a sixties Motown soundtrack, some of the best music ever made. Unlike the somewhat comparable American Graffiti, these songs are still relevant and have meaning, resonance. Amazing soundtrack. It's real, and that's what sets Cooley High apart, this isn't just a coming of age story - this is Eric Monte's coming of age story, his life, his real world.

ABC adapted the film to a pilot that audiences did not love, so later they retooled it with new characters to become "What's Happening!!" with lead character Raj bearing only the slightest resemblance to Preach. Later Eric Monte would sue for more money
regarding his various contributions to television, after which he was pretty much blacklisted from the industry. Bouts with drugs, bankruptcy, and homelessness have not made his life easy since.

Cooley High remains a classic, not just of black cinema, but cinema period. Definitely worth watching, must see, if you haven't already.

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