DAVID GREENE, HOST:
"Cooley High" was celebrated for capturing everyday urban life. It was set in Chicago's Cabrini-Green housing project. And in a way, you could see "Cooley High" as paving the way for filmmakers like Spike Lee and also John Singleton, who directed "Boyz N The Hood." From member station WBEZ, Derek John looks at how the movie also changed the lives of the people who made it.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUPREMES SONG, "BABY LOVE")
DEREK JOHN, BYLINE: In the opening credits of "Cooley High," we see 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 Cabrini-Green, and it's where I met Rick Stone the other day, not far from where he got his first acting job four decades ago.
RICK STONE: See where it says Starbucks?
STONE: That's where we were, right there.
JOHN: He and his friend Norman were shooting hoops one day when a white stretch limo pulled up. Inside was one of "Cooley High's" producers.
STONE: He was like, hey, how would you guys like to be in a movie? Man, get the hell out of here with all of that. 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.
JOHN: "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, well, Stone. In this scene, the two are shooting dice in the back of a diner when a girl interrupts their game.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COOLEY HIGH")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey, mama, go walk someplace else.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Why don't you gamble someplace else?
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) 'Cause we're gambling here, sweet thing.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) This is a restaurant, not an alley.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey, hey keep on stepping, baby. If we wanted to be preached to, we'd go to church.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS #1: (As character) Y'all need to go to church.
GLYNN TURMAN: (As Preach, singing) Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.
JOHN: That last voice is the brainy and bespectacled Preach. He's played by Glynn Turman. His best friend is basketball star and ladies' man Cochise, who's played by Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs. We see the boys cut class, hop on the back of a CTA bus and try to get to first base with their girlfriends. Directed by Michael Schultz, 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 suffered several strokes in recent years, he remembers it well.
ERIC MONTE: We had fun - fun, fun fun. Even poor, we had fun, fun, fun.
JOHN: But "Cooley High" takes a dark turn after Stone and Robert convince Preach and Cochise to steal a Cadillac. Afterward, Stone and Robert think the other two snitched on them, and Cochise gets killed. Preach finds him lying motionless under the L tracks, his screams drowned out by the trains above.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "COOLEY HIGH")
TURMAN: (As Preach, yelling) Help. Help me, somebody. Help, please.
JOHN: Like so much of the movie, Cochise's death was also drawn from Eric Monte's life.
MONTE: It's hard for me, even now. I'm 70 years old, but he was - he was my man. And he died just like that. It was horrible.
JOHN: After that, 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.
JACKIE TAYLOR: "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.
JOHN: That's Jackie Taylor, who plays Cochise's girlfriend, Johnny Mae, in the movie. She used the experience 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 he got eight years in prison for armed robbery. Finally, his old friend, Jackie Taylor, intervened.
STONE: Jackie called that day and said, Ricky, what you doing? And then I said, nothing. She said, well, come on down to the Black Ensemble Theater. I got something for you.
JOHN: 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 same area, in new, mixed-income housing. But what used to be Cabrini-Green looks a lot different these days.
STONE: I got white neighbors now. A white guy and his wife knocked on my door. They had a cake, and they were like, welcome to the neighborhood. I didn't have the heart to tell them that I'd been over here all my life. (Laughter) I was like, thank you (laughter).
JOHN: As for the projects, all that remains are bittersweet memories and the movie "Cooley High." For NPR News, I'm Derek John in Chicago.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT'S SO HARD TO SAY GOODBYE TO YESTERDAY")
G.C. CAMERON: (Singing) How do I say goodbye to what we had?
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.