"Cooley High" ought to be remembered as a cinema milestone, and its writer and director remembered as pioneers.
Released 40 years ago this week (on June 25, 1975), it ought to 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." And yet, the film and its creators have been largely forgotten, lost to history.
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. But the aspiring writer, who renamed himself The Jeffersons," but Monte was neither hired as a staff writer nor given credit or residuals for "The Jeffersons," which ran from 1975 to 1985.
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. But Monte again clashed with the show's producers (as did John Amos, who played patriarch James Evans) over what he felt was the show's increasing drift away from social issues in favor of clowning by the show's breakout character, Jimmie Walker's catchphrase-spouting J.J. ("Dy-no-mite!") Monte was frozen out of the show, and Amos was fired and written out of the series.
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. 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. 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.
Hired to direct the film was Michael Schultz, who was in a unique position to make that shift. An admirer of European masters like Fellini and Bergman, he came to the cinema via Broadway. He'd directed a play there called "Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?", which won a Tony for its young star, an unknown actor named Al Pacino. It also landed Schultz his first feature, the TV movie "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black." By the time he landed the "Cooley High" assignment, the African-American Schultz had directed three films, none of them blaxploitation dramas.
Much of the cast of "Cooley High" consisted of non-professional actors from the Chicago projects where the film was to be shot. But the leads were pros who would all soon go on to greater successes. Glynn Turman, who played writer/dreamer Preach, went on to a long career as a character actor, one that has continued to this day with recurring roles on shows from "A Different World" to "The Wire" to the current "House of Lies," where he plays Don Cheadle's father. Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, who played high school basketball star Cochise, would soon go on to stardom as another high schooler, Freddy Washington, on TV's "Welcome Back, Kotter." (Years later, he'd deliver a fearsome performance as Jackson family patriarch Joe Jackson in the mini-series "The Jacksons: An American Dream.") Garrett Morris, a real-life former schoolteacher who played history instructor Mr. Mason, would become famous a few months later as an original cast member of "Saturday Night Live." (Today, you can see him as Earl on "2 Broke Girls.") There was also a local kid playing a young basketball player, an actor who followed in Monte's footsteps and became a pioneering African-American filmmaker. That was Robert Townsend, future creator of "Hollywood Shuffle" and "The Five Heartbeats."
When it came out, "Cooley High" earned a lot of comparisons to "American Graffiti," released two years earlier. Both films were set in the early '60s, both were about high school boys on the cusp of adulthood who were still fixated on cars and girls and music, both featured characters who got mixed up in petty crime, and both had nostalgic soundtracks of wall-to-wall golden oldies. The "Cooley High" soundtrack was almost entirely made up of vintage Motown hits, which were available cheaply then (it would be another eight years or so before the big Motown nostalgia boom suddenly put a premium on such tunes). One new song, however, was G.C. Cameron's ballad "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday." Sixteen years later, Motown's own Boyz II Men would cover that song on their debut album -- entitled "Cooleyhighharmony" in homage to the film -- and make it into an anthem for a new generation.
"Cooley High" cost just $750,000 to make, but it earned back $13 million. Its success drew the attention of ABC, which tried to convert it into a sitcom. The network felt that Monte's pilot didn't really work, so the show was retooled and softened. The result was the hit high school sitcom "What's Happening!!", for which Monte got a producer credit, and which ran for three years. It made stars out of Ernest Thomas and Fred "Rerun" Berry and even spawned an '80s follow-up series, "What's Happening Now!!", following the high-school pals as young adults.
Schultz became one of the first black directors to find regular work with mainstream Hollywood studios. After "Cooley High," he directed three of Richard Pryor's best films: "Car Wash" (another musical slice-of-life comedy/drama), "Which Way Is Up?", and the racing biopic "Greased Lightning." He also directed 1978's "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," a musical with a predominantly white cast (including the Bee Gees and Peter Frampton) and an all-Beatles soundtrack. The movie was a huge flop, though it did give Steve Martin his first major film role, and the soundtrack did generate hits for Aerosmith and Earth Wind & Fire. The film's failure nearly derailed Schultz's career, though he bounced back in the 1980s with Motown-produced adventure "The Last Dragon" and seminal hip-hop film "Krush Groove." He's continued to work in film and television, with his most recent big-screen credit 2004's "Woman Thou Art Loosed." He currently directs episodic TV on such hit shows as "Arrow" and "Black-ish."
After "What's Happening!!" became a hit, Monte sued ABC, CBS, and Lear's production company for money he felt he was owed for his TV creations. He received a $1 million settlement but said he was blackballed from the industry thereafter. It would be decades before he sold another script (he wrote episodes of '90s comedies "The Wayans Bros." and "Moesha"). He spent most of his settlement mounting an original play that flopped, and the rest on crack. In the mid-2000s, he was off drugs and living in a Los Angeles-area homeless shelter. Illinois state representative Ken Dunkin, another former Cabrini-Green resident, raised the funds for Monte to return to subsidized housing in his hometown, where he hoped to continue to write scripts, always claiming to be one great idea away from his next smash. He resurfaced in Hollywood in February for a reunion with Turman, Hilton-Jacobs, and Townsend at a 40th anniversary screening of the film, which finally came out on Blu-ray earlier this year. If the long-gestating "Good Times" movie ever gets made, Monte may indeed find himself back in the spotlight.
Did Monte and Schultz deserve better from Hollywood? At the very least, they deserve to be celebrated for their pioneering work in telling stories about African-American life that were more than just cautionary tales of gangstas and ghettoes. Spike Lee, who has done more than anyone else to expand the range of black stories that can be told on screen, has cited "Cooley High" as an influence and an essential movie for all aspiring filmmakers to watch.
The transition towards greater inclusiveness that "Cooley High" started is far from complete. Still, when producers like Will Packer make films like "Think Like a Man" into crossover hits, when black directors are hired to make superhero blockbusters, when a star-free black high school comedy like "Dope" opens in the top five with a healthy $6.1 million (as it did this past weekend), and when the top writer/producer on TV is Shonda Rhimes, it sometimes feels like everyone is a graduate of "Cooley High."