A classic of black cinema celebrated its 40th birthday on June 25. Cooley High showed a slice of urban life rarely seen in "blaxploitation" movies of the time. Set in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project, it became a touchstone for filmmakers like John Singleton and Spike Lee.
The opening credits of Cooley High feature a wide shot of Chicago's iconic skyline. The camera then pans across high-rise apartments before zooming in on a drab row house. This was the heart of the Cabrini-Green projects, where Rick Stone, who grew up here, got his first acting job four decades ago.
"See where it says Starbucks?" Stone says. "That's where we were, right there." He recalls the day he and his friend Norman were shooting hoops when a white stretch limo pulled up. Inside was one of Cooley High's producers.
"He was like, 'How would you guys like to be in a movie?' " Stone says. "Man, get the hell out of here. We thought he was jiving... They were looking for two of the toughest gang-bangers around here and come to find out, it was the police that recommended us." Cooley High is not a documentary — but the two gang members essentially play themselves. Norman's character is called Robert, and Stone's is called...Stone.
In one scene, the two are shooting dice in the back of a diner when a girl interrupts their game.
Norman: Hey mama, go walk somewhere else.
Brenda: Why don't you gamble someplace else?
Preach: Cause we're gambling here, sweet thing.
Brenda: This is a restaurant, not an alley.
Cochise: Hey, hey keep on stepping baby. If we wanted to be preached to we'd go to church.
Brenda: Y'all need to go to church.
Preach: Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah...
The character Preach, played by Glynn Turman, is best friends with basketball star and ladies man Cochise, who's played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. Throughout the film, the pair cuts class, hops on the back of a CTA bus and tries to get to first base with their girlfriends.
For many viewers, what made Cooley High such a landmark film was its honest depiction of teenage life in the projects. Eric Monte wrote the film based on his time at the real Cooley Vocational High School. Although he's suffered several strokes in recent years, he remembers it well.
"We had fun. Even poor, we had fun, fun, fun," he says.
But — spoiler alert — Cooley High takes a dark turn when Stone and Robert convince Preach and Cochise to steal a Cadillac. Afterward, Stone and Robert think the other two snitched on them. Cochise gets killed. Preach finds him lying motionless under the El tracks, and his screams of anguish are drowned out by the trains above.
Like so much of the movie, Cochise's death was also drawn from Eric Monte's life and memories of a friend who died. "It's hard for me, even now," he says. "I'm 70 years old, but he was my man. And he died just like that. It was horrible."
After that incident, Monte hitchhiked his way out west. He worked on TV shows like Good Times and The Jeffersons, living out Preach's dreams of becoming a Hollywood screenwriter.
"Cooley High has such a strong message of positivity and breaking through barriers and becoming somebody no matter what your circumstances in life may be," says Jackie Taylor, who played Cochise's girlfriend in the movie. Taylor used her experience in the movie to launch Chicago's Black Ensemble Theater, which is still going strong today.
Rick Stone had a rougher go of it after Cooley High. His friend Norman, who played Robert, was killed in a corner stick-up, and Stone got eight years in prison for armed robbery. Finally, Stone's old friend Jackie Taylor intervened. "Taylor called that day and said 'Ricky, what you doing?" I said 'nothing.' And she said, 'Come on down to the Black Ensemble Theater. I've got something for you.'"
Taylor gave Stone a job as a janitor. Eventually he started acting again and has now appeared in more than 20 stage productions. He still lives in the area, in new mixed-income housing.
As for what used to be Cabrini-Green, it looks a lot different these days.
"I got white neighbors now," Stone says. "A white guy and his wife knocked on my door, they had a cake and were like 'Welcome to the neighborhood!' I didn't have the heart to tell them that I'd been over here all my life. I was like 'Thank you.' "