Cooley High – The Criterion Collection (Blu-ray Review)

The 70s remains a robust period for cinema. Black cinema during this time has received various forms of appreciation over the years, particularly regarding the explosion of Blaxploitation films. Cooley High is in a different class. Call it “Black American graffiti” if you’d like, and it’s not inaccurate. Whatever the case, this is a funny and endearing coming-of-age story revolving around Black teens in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project. Seeing The Criterion Collection give Cooley High a proper Blu-ray release, complete with a fantastic new digital transfer, is a great thing to see. Sure, this is another step in delving into the diverse range of American cinema arriving during influential times in film history, but the film also stands out as a cinematic depiction of joy from the perspective of Black teens in an authentic environment. Having the film scored by Motown hits is merely a bonus.


Being the sort of film that it is, Cooley High is less about having a straightforward narrative and more focused on providing a depiction of a specific time in the lives of two friends. While made in the 70s, this film is set in 1964 Chicago. Preach (Glynn Turman) and his best friend Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) are nearing the end of their time in high school, and on the verge of moving on to their next chapters in life. Preach, in particular, is an aspiring playwright looking to get out of the city, and not end up like many of the others he sees still hanging around.

So much of this film plays out like a series of inspired bits being strung together, but it’s not as simple as having a collection of ideas. Thanks to the work of director Michael Schultz, there is a solid understanding of how to keep this film working as a story in motion. We come to understand these two friends, as well as the others they associate with, some of the adults in their lives, and some of the women they pursue. Much of the film follows the boys as they hit up various dance parties, go on joyrides, and attempt (stumble) their way into some romantic situations. It’s largely good-natured fun before the film finds a way to increase the stakes in a manner that will solidify what kind of life Preach, in particular, needs to have.

The key to this is how well the film uses Cabrini-Green and the surrounding area to understand these kids. Candyman and the media have certainly given this area a reputation that is not necessarily untrue, depending on how one comes at it (yet still wildly overstated). However, this place is home to the characters in this film and screenwriter Eric Monte, who bases much of this film on his own experiences. It’s one of the toughest ghettos in America, but it’s what they know, and their actions play as a reaction to what they’ve experienced and how they can best conduct themselves.

On a note of promise, however, this film correctly shows how kids are not a product of their environment, as they can choose to be more. Cooley High doesn’t fit our lead characters into the category of bad kids or anything like that. They are mischievous at best, and even then, they are also intelligent kids and too well-meaning to be deemed anything worse, considering the actions they get involved in and certain consequences that play out. This is important, as the film is very likable thanks to how we see Preach and Cochise.

With that dynamic at play, while working mainly as a comedy, it’s easy to see how this film plays as a time capsule of what Black life looks like. A few significant interactions hint at forms of discrimination and racial standing. More encouragingly, you have Garrett Morris turning up for a small role as a teacher who sees the good in his students. Other sequences are more downright funny in the way they reflect what makes this part of Chicago unique, as we see how house parties playout or what it means to find quick ways to grab snacks or see a movie (Mothra vs. Godzilla makes a cameo by the way).

It’s not a wonder that this film was a solid hit for the time, as it captures a particular spirit that would attract teens and more. Helping out greatly is its quality. Yes, there are easy enough gags at play, but Cooley High manages to go deeper than that without losing its energetic spirit. It’s not a wonder that this film became a classic in regards to Black cinema, let alone a touchstone film for directors including Spike Lee and John Singleton. This is the sort of comedy that aims to present a particular era but uses ideas surrounding friendship and the loss of innocence that remain timeless and universal in their own way, and on a minimal budget, no less. So, it’s not a wonder that it still plays well now.



Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1

Layers: BD-50

Details: This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative.

Clarity/Detail: This excellent transfer does a lot of justice to a film made for under one million dollars. I’ve seen the uglier versions of this film, so once again, we have a case of a movie made that much better by seeing a proper restoration in place. One can see how life was breathed into this film now, allowing for strong looks at the production design to reflect what Cabrini-Green looked like. The details all stand out when considering the homes, schools, costumes, and more. It’s a terrific-looking film.

Depth: The staging of this film makes for a good understanding of character placement, with no sense of flatness in watching these people move around the various environments. Watching party scenes, particularly, shows just how strong the sense of depth can be.

Black Levels: The darker scenes taking place all shine, given the age of this film. Shadow work and more are all handled well for this disc. There’s a good sense of contrast and no signs of crushing or noise.

Color Reproduction: This film is full of bright scenes and colors, which helps bring this film to life in inspiring ways. This is no ghetto drama, it’s a fun comedy, and the choices made for these characters reflect it all quite well.

Flesh Tones: The detail level seen in the actual characters is impressive, with so much natural lighting helping to properly show off flesh tones.

Noise/Artifacts: The film looks nice and clean, with no issues in sight.



Audio Format(s): English LPCM 1.0 Monaural

Subtitles: English SDH

Details: The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35 mm dialogue, music, and effects magnetic track.

Dynamics: What else do I have to say about a film heavy on banter and full of Motown classics? For a mono soundtrack, there’s very little not to appreciate how it’s been handled for this release. The music comes through and informs so much of this film, and everyone is on task to deliver so much fun dialogue.

Low-Frequency Extension: N/A

Surround Sound Presentation: N/A

Dialogue Reproduction: Everyone is heard loud and clear.



The set of extras is deceptively slim. Yes, there are only three features besides the standard packaging and booklet, but the materials are of strong quality. The only thing missing is Glynn Turman’s presence in a newer feature, given how willing he is to give interviews in various features I’ve seen in the past, making me believe it had to be an availability-related issue. Regardless, even without a commentary, one can learn plenty about Cooley High.

Features Include:

  • Remembering Cooley High (HD, 35:35) – A newly recorded interview with director Schultz and film scholar Racquel J. Gates. The two go over the origins of this story and the impact the film has had. An excellent one-on-one interview.
  • The Cooley High Story (HD, 9:29) – A 2017 program from TCM providing some fun interviews with the cast and crew about the making of the film.
  • Academy Tribute (HD, 1:06:46) – The meatiest feature is a 2019 tribute to the film held at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Actor/filmmaker Robert Townsend hosts a panel featuring director Schultz, casting director Gloria Schultz, and actors Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs and Garret Morris. It’s an enjoyable panel with plenty of insight.
  • Trailer (HD, 1:17)
  • PLUS – An essay by critic Craigh Barboza



Cooley High is such a fun pick for Criterion. The film tells a funny and endearing story that authentically portrays Black teenagers’ lives at a point where having fun and thinking about what’s next is at a crossroads. The outstanding video restoration does a great job of making this film look better than ever, and the collection of extras is enough to satisfy all who want to delve further into the legacy of this film. Coming-of-age stories have plenty of fans, and this is a good one to keep in mind.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Gamer, Comic Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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