Tuesday, September 8, 2015

On COOLEY HIGH

I reviewed COOLEY HIGH in my college newspaper when the movie was new.  I enjoyed it then.  I feel it's even more significant now.  A few reviewers called this 1975 release about high school kids in 1964 "the black American Graffiti."  That was meant as a compliment.  American Graffiti got George Lucas Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Lucas' tale about Caucasian high schoolers coming of age in California in 1962 was also a big box office hit and a nominee for Best Picture of 1973.  Cooley High is now available on Blu-ray thanks to OliveFilms.com.
Directed by Michael Schultz with a screenplay by Eric Monte (creator of the Good Times TV sitcom), we follow high school students and friends on the near North Side of Chicago.  The cast includes Glynn Turman, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Saturday Night Live member Garrett Morris as one of the school teachers.
Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, wearing a cap and seated up top, was known to millions as a high schooler on the hit ABC TV sitcom Welcome Back, Kotter.  Glynn Turman was also on a sitcom.  He was in the cast of the NBC sitcom A Different World.  He's done extensive TV acting appearances and he's also familiar as a mayor on HBO's The Wire.  By the way, Turman was the first (and probably only) black actor to be in a film written and directed by acclaimed Ingmar Bergman.  Turman played Monroe in Bergman's 1977 production, The Serpent's Egg starring Liv Ullman.
By the way, Glynn Turman was the first (and probably only) black actor to be in a film written and directed by the renowned Ingmar Bergman.  Turman played Monroe in Bergman's 1977 drama, The Serpent's Egg, starring Liv Ullman.  Not a bad credit to add to his resumé after playing Leroy "Preach" Jackson in Cooley High.
In the September 2 edition of The New York Times this week, J. Hoberman wrote about this 1975 comedy/drama in an article entitled "Seventeen and Cooley High:  No Easy A's, but Powerful Lessons."  Cooley High director Michael Schultz went on to become one of the busiest directors of episodic television.  A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (where I attended college), he directed Eric Monte's semi-autobiographical Cooley High script and then, for a while, made Hollywood history as the African-American director who'd been given the biggest budget ever to call the shots on a a major Hollywood studio release.  1978's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was chock full of Beatles tunes and the Bee Gees but it was, unfortunately, a huge flop.  However, Schultz directed the only big screen musical finale that puts Carol Channing, Tina Turner and Chita Rivera next to each other.
There was a time -- long, long ago -- when Denzel Washington made comedies.  One of those comedies is 1981's Carbon Copy.  In it, George Segal (now seen as the grandfather on the ABC sitcom, The Goldbergs) plays a white executive who discovers that he has a black son.  The son is eager to be adopted into dad's predominantly white life and community.

Michael Schultz directed that one too.  And let's not forget to thank Mr. Schultz for giving us...Car Wash.  And didn't we all disco dance to the title tune back in 1976?

And didn't we all just love the inimitable Antonio Fargas as the ever-so-real Lindy?

About Cooley High, J. Hoberman wrote this in The New York Times:  "Mr. Schultz's movie is set just before the movement for racial equality turned north (and increasingly violent)."  Schultz's high school movie, to repeat, was set in 1964.  Let's jump ahead to another director who became extremely popular and beloved for directing movies about high schoolers in the Chicago area -- the late and beloved John Hughes.

I admit that I was entertained by his movies when they came out -- movies such as Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985) and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986).  These were movies made years after the movement for racial equality that Hoberman mentioned in his newspaper article.  They were modern-day movies set in Chicago -- Chicago during the Oprah years when she was a new local morning show host soon to become the national queen of daytime TV with her syndicated talk show and studio audience in Chicago.  The John Hughes teen comedies were amusing but, as a person who spent a lot of great time in the Windy City, I always felt like shouting at the screen, "Hey, John Hughes!  Ya know there are black kids in Chicago high schools!  And black actors who could play parts as students and teachers!"
The 1980s racial diversity that you saw in the average Oprah weekday studio audience was rarely, if ever, reflected in a John Hughes teen feature.  When his popular movies starring Molly Ringwald were new, I was new in New York City and working as an entertainment reporter.  I interviewed Ringwald and other young cast members of Hughes films.  I watched the movies with a reviewer's eye -- and a more critical one than I had when I reviewed for The Marquette Tribune in Milwaukee when Cooley High was released.

The only ethnic young actor I can recall in a John Hughes teen comedy was Gedde Watanabe in Sixteen Candles as "Long Duk Dong."
I love the actor but that Chinese menu item/male sex organ name of his (screenplay by John Hughes) was on the lame side.  He had dialogue that reminded me of stereotyped Asians in 1930s Hollywood movies.  Gedde deserved better.

Cooley High is a worth a look.  It's very entertaining.  And it was great to see African-American high school students in 1960s Chicago.  Because, in the John Hughes Chicago of the 1980s, there was no such thing as African-American high school students to pal around with Molly Ringwald or Matthew Broderick.

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