Two compelling 1970s dramas about black youth
Brian Camp | Bronx, NY | 05/12/2010
(3 out of 5 stars)
"I saw these two movies on a double bill at a neighborhood theater in the Bronx back in 1976. At the time, when I was closer in age and temperament to its main characters, I liked COOLEY HIGH a little more, but after re-viewing both films on this DVD 34 years later, I find that CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME holds up better. Both are coming-of-age dramas about black youth in inner-city neighborhoods in the north (Chicago in COOLEY, an unnamed city in CORNBREAD). Both have tragic elements. CORNBREAD is much more focused on the tragedy and the accompanying dramatics while COOLEY is more concerned with comic vignettes of neighborhood life involving chasing girls, getting laid, getting high, cutting school and brushes with the law. Both films were designed to counter widespread criticism of the blaxploitation genre as a crude, money-driven distortion of the black experience.
CORNBREAD tells the story of a quest for justice after Nathaniel "Cornbread" Hamilton, a popular neighborhood basketball player headed for a college scholarship, is gunned down by the police in a case of mistaken identity and then slandered as a criminal by the police to cover up their blunder. The central figure is 11-year-old Wilford, the cousin of Cornbread and the closest witness to the shooting. The film gets a tad over-melodramatic as the stereotypically evil white cops intimidate the black witnesses to keep them from testifying truthfully at the inquest. The big plot hole here is the omission of all the adults in Cornbread's life outside of his family who would have spoken up for him, from his white employer at the recreation center to his unseen teachers and coaches. Their absence makes it much easier for the police to stack the deck against the efforts of Cornbread's parents.
Still, it's a thoroughly moving story and one that remains timely, given that shootings of unarmed black men by the police continue to make the headlines. The film stands out today for its strong performances by a number of major black actors of the 1970s, including Moses Gunn as the lawyer for Cornbread's family; Madge Sinclair and Stack Pierce as Cornbread's grief-stricken working-class parents, who show quiet dignity in their determination to clear Cornbread's name; Rosalind Cash as Sarah Robinson, Wilford's conflicted mother, whose dependence on welfare makes her particularly vulnerable to intimidation; Bernie Casey as Officer Atkins, one of the two policemen who fire at Cornbread; and Thalmus Rasulala as Charlie, Sarah's boyfriend, who intervenes during a visit by an abusive police sergeant and then has to go into hiding. And, of course, there's young Laurence Fishburne, in his first film, in the role of Wilford. We could see even then that the actor had a bright future. Sad to note, though, that four of the above--Gunn, Sinclair, Cash and Rasulala--are no longer with us.
COOLEY HIGH is set in Chicago in 1964 and offers slice-of-life vignettes of inner-city high school kids at school, at play and in various stages of love. Back in 1976, I was close enough to the era and way of life depicted for it to have strong resonance for me, particularly when various Motown favorites sang out from the soundtrack. In the years since, my nostalgia for the era (and its soundtrack) has dimmed considerably. I find some of the vignettes a little tiresome now. All that running around by the boys and the frequent laughter at their own immature antics doesn't entertain much anymore. And the irresponsible behavior which leads to tragedy may once have seemed perfectly normal to me, but I've grown up since then.
The girls in the film are all virtual playthings used and abused by the boys for their own gratification. The humiliation they suffer is often treated comically. The one female character accorded any respect, if that's the word for it, is Brenda, a rather bland, studious light-skinned girl to whom Preach, the poetry-spouting protagonist, is instantly attracted, throwing over his less motivated dark-skinned girlfriend in the process. Preach's best friend, Cochise, refers to Brenda as a "high yellow bitch." Only one mother is seen in the film (Preach's) and no fathers. The one father figure we see is the high school's history teacher, Mr. Mason, played by fourth-billed Garrett Morris, who doesn't appear in the film until the 72-minute mark. The few whites seen are portrayed as clueless squares, a common stereotype in black films back then.
Still, the film offers a steady stream of authentic background details and honest portrayals of black life in the era, from house parties to gang wars to dating practices to dance styles of the time to cramped apartments in the projects. Location shooting in Chicago gives a real sense of the urban life of the city and the various spaces these kids move through and occupy. The main actors, Glynn Turman and Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, elevate the film considerably with their spot-on performances as Preach and Cochise, respectively, the only two in their circle with aspirations beyond the neighborhood. Hilton-Jacobs, of course, went on to star in "Welcome Back, Kotter," which premiered in 1975, the same year as this film. Eric Monte, who wrote the screenplay for this film, was also co-creator of the popular Chicago-set sitcom, "Good Times," which premiered in 1974. A later sitcom, "What's Happening?," was supposedly based on COOLEY HIGH, although I never quite grasped the connection between the two.
Each film in this set gets its own disc. CORNBREAD, EARL AND ME is seen in its proper aspect ratio, while COOLEY HIGH is inexplicably cropped to full-screen. That's the only major production flaw I can cite."
Good Buy for the Money
James N. Smith | Memphis, TN United States | 02/28/2010
(4 out of 5 stars)
"I was really wanting Cooley High, but I vaguely remembered Cornbread, Earl and Me, so I snagged this set. Normally movies packaged together in sets spells cheap, but the transfer on these two films is about as good as you could expect unless Criterion decided to give them the treatment. Each film has its own disc. Both films still hold up remarkably well, Cooley High especially. The one reason that I didn't give it 5 stars is that the set is woefully absent of extras, meaning there are none at all. Many of these actors are still alive, not sure about the director or producer, but since they are both different the the normal blaxploitation films coming out at the time, it would have been interesting to hear about what it took to get these two particular films made. Still a good buy, you won't be disappointed."
Oldies but goodies....
B. O. Williams | Nassau, Bahamas | 01/31/2010
(5 out of 5 stars)
"This set was very good, brought back memories of when I was young and went to the movies. They (the 2 movies) are just as good now as they were then (mid seventies). I loved seeing them again."