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.
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.
- Author Avatar: Preach wants to go to Hollywood and become a screenwriter.
- Downer Ending: Cochise gets beaten to death, and the epilogue reveals that several other characters died early and violent deaths.
- Hollywood Nerd: Preach wears Nerd Glasses and is teased for writing poetry. On the other hand, the glasses are the only nerdy looking thing about him, and he is not exactly hurting in the romance department.
- 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.
- Present-Day Past: A lot of the clothing, hair, and cars in this movie look more like 1975 than 1964.
- The '60s: When it takes place (but you often can't tell because of all the Present-Day Past).
- The '70s: When it was made.
- "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: Played completely straight, just like in American Graffiti. This was probably before this trope became a stock parody.