Cooley High: Is the 1975 Film Based on Actual Best Friends?

Directed by Michael Schultz, ‘Cooley High’ is a coming-of-age comedy-drama film released in 1975. It revolves around the lives of high school seniors and best friends, Leroy “Preach” Jackson and Richard “Cochise” Morris. However, when Preach and Cochise encounter two criminals, their seemingly upbeat lifestyle takes a dark turn. The film is known for its realistic and authentic depiction of African-American day-to-day life in Chicago. As a result of the film’s emotional resonance and cultural significance, viewers must be curious to learn about the inspiration behind ‘Cooley High.’

The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Cooley High

‘Cooley High’ is loosely based on a true story. The film was written by Eric Monte, who revealed his personal experiences helped shape the screenplay. Born as Kenneth Williams, Eric Monte is a screenwriter from Chicago, Illinois, whose works were prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. Monte rose to prominence with his work on the 1970s sitcom ‘All in the Family’ developed by Norman Lear. Later, Monte worked on spin-off shows such as ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘Good Times.’

In a 2006 interview, Monte detailed the conceptualization of ‘Cooley High.’ The screenwriter revealed that while working on ‘Good Times,’ he came in contact with producer Steve Krantz. After sharing stories about his experience as a black person living in Chicago, Illinois, Monte convinced Krantz that Hollywood’s authentic representation of the experience was missing. As a result, Krantz made a voice recording of Monte’s stories and sent it to studios. The pitch was accepted by American International Pictures, who commissioned Monte to pen the screenplay. After API greenlit the project, Monte quit ‘Good Times’ to work on the film, leading to the creation of ‘Cooley High.’

Monte has stated that his personal experiences inspired the film. As a child, Monte attended the Edwin Gilbert Cooley Vocational High School located on the Near North Side of Chicago. He lived with his family in the Cabrini-Green Homes, a public housing project. Both Cooley High and the Cabrini-Green Home serve as the main backdrops for the movie’s narrative, and Monte based several of the film’s characters on real-life figures he interacted with.

“Cooley High is a true story — my story of growing up in the Cabrini-Green Homes. In the mid-1970s, I was working on the TV show Good Times and was approached to do a movie on my life growing up in Chicago. Of course, I said yes,” Monte said in an interview with Chicago Magazine. “I hated school. I enjoyed reading books but found going to class boring. I didn’t want to be there. People would get in fights all the time, and I always wore a suit and tie in the hope that people wouldn’t mess with me. My friends and I would drink, chase girls, smoke weed, (and) hang out. We’d go to dances to try and get girls. I channeled all of that into Cooley High,” Monte added.

The Cooley Vocational High School was closed down in June 1979, roughly four years after the film’s release. A majority of the Cabrini-Green Homes were also demolished by 2011. However, the legacy of both locations lives on through the movie. Monte revealed that the character of Leroy “Preach” Jackson was based on himself. On the other hand, the character Richard “Cochise” Morris was based on his deceased friend, Apache. Monte admitted that he had never been part of a high-speed car chase with the police and made up the scene in the film. As a result, Monte’s words strongly confirm that ‘Cooley High’ is loosely based on his real experiences, condensed into a dramatized narrative with additional fictional elements.

‘Cooley High’ tells a coming-of-age story through the journey of Preach and Cochise while highlighting the social, economic, and cultural issues faced by African-American high schoolers in Chicago during the 1960s. As a result of its accurate portrayal of life in Chicago, especially for the African-American populace, the film has garnered recognition and universal resonance over the decades. Because of its release when Blaxploitation cinema was gaining ground, it has been equated to films such as ‘American Graffiti,’ albeit with an African-American context.

Ultimately, ‘Cooley High’ is loosely based on a true story. It is inspired by Eric Monte’s real-life experience of growing up in Chicago. However, the film includes various fictional elements to tell a fulfilling and emotionally resonant coming-of-age story. As a result, the film has transcended cultural barriers and continues to be one of the most influential and popular films about the African-American experience due to its authenticity, heartfelt storytelling, and careful combination of fiction and reality.

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