The story explores the adventures and relationships of Leroy "Preach" Jackson (Glynn Turman) and Richard "Cochise" Morris (Lawrence Hilton Jacobs), two black high school students at Edwin J. Cooley High School whose carefree lives take a turn for the worse through several twists of fate.
Set in 1964 Chicago, the film features an all-Motown soundtrack, including the original version of "It's So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday", which was later Covered Up by Boyz II Men on their debut album Cooleyhighharmony. Garrett Morris plays Mr. Mason, the history teacher. Robert Townsend made his film debut in a bit part (he's one of the basketball players).
A TV series was planned, which actually ended up being retooled into the nearly-unrecognizable What's Happening!!.
This movie provides of examples of the following tropes:
- Anachronism Stew: Several of the songs used in the film were released after the period in which it is supposedly set. (At the party everyone slow dances to "Ooo Baby Baby", which came out in 1965.)
- Author Avatar: Preach wants to go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter.
- Chase Scene: Preach claiming that he has experience as a chauffeur leads to his buddies letting him drive a stolen Cadillac. It turns out he can hardly drive at all ("I guess R means reverse!"), leading to a chase scene when his erratic driving attracts the attention of a cop car on patrol. Preach goes careening through the streets, cop car in pursuit, and into some sort of industrial facility, where he and the gang eventually escape after the cop car gets stuck on a forklift.
- Coming of Age Story: A bunch of kids in high school experience love and tragedy and do a lot of growing up.
- Conversation Cut: Preach is telling a series of desperate lies to the cop that has brought him in on grand theft auto charges. The cop says "That's bullshit!" Cut to Mr. Mason, in a different room, saying "That's not bullshit!" as he urges the cop to give Preach a break.
- Downer Ending: Cochise gets beaten to death, and the epilogue reveals that several other characters died early and violent deaths.
- Driver Faces Passenger: Preach, who has so little experience at driving a car that he doesn't know what the R on the gearshift means, manages to win a car chase and evade some cops. He turns to brag to his friends about his driving skills, and right after one of them says "Look out!", Preach rear-ends a parked car.
- Feet-First Introduction: Brenda is first seen when her feet come right into the middle of the dice game that Preach is playing at the diner. (She wants to get past them to the bathroom.)
- Glasses Pull: Preach does this when pretty Brenda walks away after their first meeting at the diner.
- High School: The boys are enrolled at the eponymous Cooley High. They skip school sometimes but are also trying to get good grades (in one scene they're studying for the big history test).
- Impersonating an Officer: The gang doesn't have enough money to go to the movies. Cochise and Preach use a toy police badge to scam two Streetwalkers out of $10. They get the money but have to beat a hasty retreat when one of the hookers notices that Preach's badge says "The Lone Ranger".
- It Always Rains at Funerals: Naturally it's raining as Preach watches the burial of his best friend Cochise.
- Karma Houdini: After killing Cochise, Damon enlists in the United States Army and is stationed in Europe. Averted with Robert and Stone, who end up dying in a gas station holdup.
- Libation for the Dead: Early in the movie, Preach jokingly pours out wine To Absent Friends, and is scolded for wasting it. At the end, the trope is played seriously as he pours it over Cochise's grave.
- Nerd Glasses: This is how you know Preach is the "smart one" of the group.
- Nothing but Hits: And how! The soundtrack is filled with popular Motown hits, starting with "Baby Love" by The Supremes over the opening credits.
- N-Word Privileges: In full effect, as the word is used frequently by black teenagers in 1960s Chicago.
- Present-Day Past: A lot of the clothing, hair, and cars in this movie look more like 1975 than 1964.
- Random Events Plot: The boys sneak out of school, go to the zoo, joyride in a stolen car, study for a history test, make out with their girlfriends at the movies, go to a party. Preach has sex with Brenda. All these are disconnected until the last act circles back to the stolen car when Preach and Cochise get arrested for grand theft auto.
- Starbucks Skin Scale: Brenda, the good-looking girl that Preach takes an interest in, is lighter-skinned than him or his buddies or indeed most anybody in the neighborhood. Preach's friends mock him for thinking he can get with a "high yellow" girl like her.
- Stern Teacher: Mr. Mason, who brooks no nonsense in his classroom and puts a stop to the smoking and gambling going on in the bathroom. He also cares about his kids, though, telling Preach that he's wasting his potential and intervening when Preach and Cochise get arrested.
- Sudden Downer Ending: The mostly comic adventures of a bunch of rambunctious teenagers suddenly veer into tragedy, when Cochise is beaten to death at the end.
- Tempting Fate: The boys are at the zoo, looking at a gorilla. Pooter says the others shouldn't taunt the gorilla, further explaining "You be nice to him, and he'll be nice to you." Immediately after this the gorilla throws some poop and hits Pooter square in the chest.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Played completely straight, just like in American Graffiti. This was probably before this trope became a stock parody.
- Preach: went on to enjoy a successful career in Hollywood as a screenwriter.
- Stone and Robert: killed during a 1966 gas station robbery.
- Brenda: moved to Atlanta, married, had three children and works as a librarian.
- Damon: A sergeant in the in the Army, stationed in Europe.
- Pooter: a factory worker in Indiana.
- Tyrone: killed in 1968 during a riot at the Chicago Democratic National Convention
- Wild Teen Party: The party at Dorothy's apartment turns into a brawl when Damon catches his girlfriend dancing with Cochise.
- Your Mom: As Preach is changing for school, Cochise mocks his rather unflattering boxers. Preach does a few pelvic thrusts and says "Yo' mama like it."