Spike Lee’s Essential Films (SLEF) — Episode 17: Cooley High (1975)
Inspired by my friend Krishan’s 2016 goal to watch 100 films from 100 different countries, my dad and I have tasked ourselves with the similar project to watch all the films on Spike Lee’s Essential Films list. Every week we’ll try and have a quick conversation about what we just watched.
The list was picked out from a shortlist of many, on the basis that there are about 50 films on it that we have both not seen, and that cross a wide variety of genres, years, countries etc. I am not particularly a fan of Spike Lee as a director, but I do believe he has good taste!
This week we watched Cooley High.
Brief Synopsis: In 1964, a group of high school friends who live on the Near North Side of Chicago enjoy life to the fullest…parties, hanging out, meeting new friends. Then life changes for two of the guys when they meet a pair of career criminals and get falsely arrested in connection with stealing a Cadillac. We follow their lives through the end of high school and the dramatic end to their school year.
David: As you can probably tell from the synopsis and picture, Cooley High is a coming of age high school movie, featuring a predominantly black cast.
Mick: What were your expectations going into this movie?
David: I expected something along the lines of Dazed and Confused or American Graffiti meets Do The Right Thing. I was sceptical of what the quality of the film would be, because I had the impression, having not heard of the film, that it was included because of the race thing, rather than purely its quality.
Mick: Having watched a significant number of movies on the SLEF list, we know that Spike doesn’t always include movies because they’re the best movies made. He includes them because there’s a particular point made, because they show something in particular. This is another entry in the list that speaks to the diversity of Spike’s selections.
David: Perhaps it was just a gap in my own knowledge, but I think this is the only English language film on the list that I had never even heard of before, hence my scepticism. Did your expectations differ to mine?
Mick: Well, like you I hadn’t heard of it before. All I knew about it was what I’d seen when looking up purchasing the DVD. I expected it to be about the hardships of growing up in a poor black urban neighbourhood in the US in the Sixties.
David: Yeah well I think most of our expectations were pretty much on the money, but I think in terms of overall enjoyment my expectations were mildly exceeded.
I think quite clearly the spiritual companion to this film, of the films we’ve seen from the SLEF so far, is Hoop Dreams.
Mick: It’s a very direct comparison, both films being about young black teenagers being brought up in Chicago. A different era, Cooley High is some 25 years earlier, but actually a lot of similarities in the issues they were facing.
David: You could write a whole essay comparing how little has changed between the two films, one a fictionalised account set in the 60s, the other a documentary from the 90s, and I’m sure if you were a student in Spike’s film class you’d be lauded for doing so. But let’s not delve too heavily into that here.
Mick: Going back to our original point, let’s get to how the film stacked up against our expectations. I was pleasantly surprised that the film was quite light-hearted and upbeat for the most part — my expectations were for a fairly dark, depressing affair.
David: The characters are light-hearted and upbeat, but the film and the story is tragic…
The main character, Cochise, is killed at the film’s end, because two drop-out criminals suspect (wrongly) that he and Preach (the film’s other main character) grassed on them to avoid jail time.
I mean, Cochise is basically one of the kids from Hoop Dreams. He’s the guy from the ghetto, skipping class, but carefree because he’s going to college on a basketball scholarship (he bares a striking resemblance to Russell Westbrook too…). His untimely demise is just one of the tragic possibilities that is a reality for the kids from Hoop Dreams.
It’s a fun, upbeat movie to watch I guess, but that is entirely soured at the film’s conclusion. It’s a tragedy.
Mick: The ending comes as a real punch in the guts. I didn’t really see that coming at all. As mentioned, the movie had been much lighter up to that point, and just like that, bang, he’s dead. There were quite a few fights in the film, but no knives, no guns, and I just couldn’t see that coming, him dying in the end.
David: I kinda had a sense it was coming, even though I agree it was a bolt from the blue. I have a theory though that one of the most narratively satisfying ways to end a movie, or a story is by the death of something, or someone. We only reach a resolution when something ends, and for that reason I always had in my mind that it might come through one of the characters dying.
I’ll compare the film again to Dazed and Confused, a movie that doesn’t really end with a resolution, that doesn’t have a driving storyline throughout. The lack of a coherent narrative arc in that case shows how trivial the film’s events are, and how oblivious to it the characters are. Cooley High feels like it’s heading that way, until out of nowhere Cochise is dead. There wasn’t a hugely captivating story heading up to that point, but his death puts a full stop on the narrative.
Mick: It’s one of those films that there’s not a lot to say about it…
David: Well that doesn’t bode well… we’ve still got like 300 words to go… Let’s talk about my favourite scene, which was when Preach and Cochise hustle $10 out of some prostitutes.
Mick: They needed a few extra dollars to get the whole gang into the movies, so the boys come up with the clever plan of soliciting two prostitutes, then acting as if they are undercover cops and getting the prostitutes to bribe them. They pull this off with a fake badge that almost spoils the plan when one of the prostitutes notices, “Hey! This says the Lone Ranger!”, not a moment too late.
I also liked the scene at the beginning where the boys steal sweets from the hot dog stall, by distracting the sales girl with some slick talking. At this point I was sure the film was going to be a comedy, and indeed as the film progressed I kept finding myself questioning whether or not the film was a comedy or a serious drama about how tough life was growing up black in urban Chicago in the Sixties.
David: That scene was pretty good, but it was totally sullied by the ridiculous scene that preceded it, where Preach and Cochise manage to skip class by pretending one of them has a nosebleed using the teacher’s nail varnish. Was she completely devoid of sense of smell?!?
Mick: For me one of the things that made the movie enjoyable was the soundtrack, which just in itself seemed to keep the movie upbeat.
David: I think that was largely an exercise in time-stamping, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I think it was a conscious decision by the director to place us in an era, and make us very clear of it. The same can be said of those berets they wore…
Mick: So, I enjoyed a lot of the light-hearted moments in the film, and a number of the characters were quite engaging, but for me I was constantly wondering where it was going to go, and indeed thinking this is going nowhere. It was quite frustrating at times, and I was beginning to lose interest when I couldn’t see which direction things were heading in. The ending then came as a real kick in the guts, which I think was actually a bad thing for the film, as it really deflated the whole experience for me. 7/10.
David: I think I generally feel the same way about the film as you, except I wasn’t quite as disengaged with the lack of strong plot, and likewise I wasn’t as offended by the rug being pulled out at the end. Happy endings are overrated. I thought it was an interesting watch, and perhaps embarrassingly I can’t think of many similar films I’ve seen, which for me makes it a perfectly justifiable inclusion in this list. But still only a 7/10.
Join us next week when we watch Killer of Sheep.