American Graffiti (1973) was the breakthrough film for its 29-year old writer-director, George Lucas: a nostalgic into-the-night film, set in the recent past against the background of car culture in Modesto, California, which launched the careers of a half-dozen of the biggest movie and television stars of the 1970s, ranging from Richard Dreyfuss to Harrison Ford to Suzanne Somers.
The film also inspired a particularly robust crop of knock-offs into the next decade, ranging from Van Nuys Blvd (1979) to Porky’s (1982) to A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon (1988), plus an (unnecessary) official sequel in 1979. And that is not even counting “Happy Days”, which debuted the following year with Graffiti’s Ron Howard in the lead role.
With a semi-autobiographical screenplay by writer Eric Monte, Cooley High is a strange mixture of juvenile antics and heartfelt characterization, capped off with an ending far more downbeat than Lucas’s yearning look back into the recent past. Often described as “The Black American Graffiti”, it would be more accurate to add “…if instead of getting on the plane to go to Harvard, it ended with Richard Dreyfuss getting beat up and left to die under a freeway overpass.”
This thematic schizophrenia can probably be attributed to Cooley High having been produced for American-International Pictures by Samuel Z. Arkoff, names that are synonymous with low-brow, high-high concept Teensploitation movies from the 1950s onward (Attack of the Puppet People, anyone?)
AIP is at their best producing lovable trash, but it works against Cooley High’s meandering first hour, as we follow the antics of a bunch of high school students from Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects, as they cut class, indulge in mild delinquency, drink, smoke pot, make out with their girlfriends, attend a rent party and end the night outwitting the cops during a joyride in a classmate’s Cadillac. Pretty standard teen highjinks.
The movie does a little better when it digs deeper into the friendship between basketball star Richard “Cochise” Morris (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) and aspiring writer Leroy “Preach” Jackson. Cochise and Preach hold themselves apart from the rest of the crowd, as they aim to get out of the neighborhood after graduation, and dream beyond a factory job or the army.
And these plans seem eminently achievable, as Cochise receives a basketball scholarship and tough-but-respected History teacher Mr. Mason (Garrett Morris) tries to goad Preach out of his slacker-like ways.
Complications ensue when Cochise and Preach are hauled in by the police for that late-night joyride and Preach is suddenly faced by a series of escalating situations that he can no longer talk his way out of, in addition to disappointing his teacher and overworked mother, and a betrayal by his best friend.
The unexpectedly affecting ending features “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday”, written specifically for the film and performed by G. C. Cameron (almost 20 years later both song and scene would be covered by Boyz II Men and become a #1 hit single); the film concludes with the familiar Dragnet-style blurbs about the fates of the main characters, and we learn that Preach did indeed realize his dream of becoming a successful Hollywood screenwriter.
My main complaint regarding the film is its tendency to use the female characters as props: none of the women are given anything close to character development, despite some promising glimpses early in the plot. Of these, Brenda (Cynthia Davis), a light-skinned, middle-class classmate who is endlessly pursued by Preach, gets the most screen time, but after a particularly vicious turn, her storyline just kind of trails off.
Stray Thoughts: While not as much of a launching pad for new talent as George Lucas’s film, the leads still have enjoyed healthy careers: Hilton-Jacobs is probably best known as Washington on “Welcome Back, Kotter”, Turman had a recurring role as Mayor Royce on “The Wire”, and Morris would become one of the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live”.
Screenwriter Monte successfully spun the movie off into the TV series “What’s Happening!!”
Availability: Released on DVD in 2000, it appears to now be out-of-print, except as a part of a double-feature bargain disc.