First attaining success in theatre, Michael Schultz went on to direct his first feature film Together for Days in 1973. Schultz’s early films combined comedy and social commentary in a manner that not only allowed the director to share his perspective, but also allowed audiences to gain a sense of kinship to his characters. Though Schultz preceded greater-known Black directors such as John Singleton and Spike Lee, his influence on Black cinema is certainly felt in equal measure. Schultz directed Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington in their first feature film roles, and, at its time, the budget for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was the largest of any film a Black director had directed. Today, Schultz now directs episodes of television shows such as Black-ish, New Girl, and most recently, All American.
Cooley High (1975)
By Alex Sitaras
A carefree look at youth and friendship that at first seems almost eternal is slowly dismantled in Michael Schultz’s Cooley High. Preach (Glynn Turman), Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), Stone (Sherman Smith), and Robert (Norman Gibson) are four close friends at the center of Cooley High’s climax, a grand theft auto that culminates in a police chase and crash into a parked vehicle. After successfully fleeing from the police, one might get the impression that the friends may have ‘gotten away with it’ due to their youth and naïveté that nothing can go wrong; however, the police inevitably appear at the friends’ school, setting into motion a sequence of events that alter the friends’ lives after two are released from the police and two are not.
Schultz expertly portrays the high schoolers’ friendship through showing them skip class, tease each other, play games, and chase after girls. Their time at school may be reminiscent of our own, and their humorous banter may echo the jabs and jokes within our own friend groups. When tragedy strikes, we wish the best for Schultz’s characters despite their wrongdoings and the loss of innocence that occurs for the youth in his film is staggering. Eric Monte, screenwriter of the film, based Cooley High’s story on his experiences and friendships at the Cooley Vocational High School. For that reason, the characters in the film are able to resonate with audiences, and the decision to include a montage at the close of the film sharing where the characters are ‘today’ as one would in a biopic is a nice touch to strengthen the gritty realism of Cooley High.
Car Wash (1976)
By Ian Floodgate
Cooley High may have gained Schultz widespread appeal across America, but it was his next feature Car Wash that gave him international recognition. Japan, along with multiple European countries, saw the release of Car Wash in theaters. The film is a series of vignettes featuring predominantly Black workers of a Los Angeles car wash. It chronicles the employees’ hopes and dreams as well as their fears and the encounters they have with customers of the business. It also gives an intriguing portrayal of sexuality and religion. One scene, in particular, has Abdullah (Bill Duke), a Black Muslim worker challenging Daddy Rich (Richard Pryor), a popular profiteering priest, in argument and though it has its comedic moments, the scene makes a compelling point. Such scenes are eminent in Schultz’s work, which Car Wash excellently showcases. Another example we see of his direction is the characterization. Though characters may appear as stereotypical in Schultz’s films, they also reflect society perfectly. The overt representation of homosexuality in Car Wash adds to the expression of freedom the film conveys and an acknowledgement that one should be be happy with who they are. Car Wash shows that we should not only remember Schultz for being one of the first mainstream Black directors, but also for being a pioneer and perhaps ahead of his time in terms of themes expressed in his films.
Carbon Copy (1981)
By Eugene Kang
Carbon Copy may be most notable for its introduction of Denzel Washington to cinema audiences, but it is also a fascinating, if flawed, work in its own right. George Segal plays Walter Whitney, a sexually frustrated lawyer working for his father-in-law’s firm, whose life is turned upside down when Roger (Washington) comes to his office, claiming that he is his son from an early relationship. Walter had forced Roger’s mother to end the relationship in order to advance in the firm, so he decides to bring Roger into his home out of guilt. Both Walter and Roger are soon kicked out of this affluent lifestyle and must fend for themselves by working menial jobs while Walter must struggle with the decision to stick by his son or forsake him and go back to the comfortable life he had grown used to.
Carbon Copy is essentially a classic Jewish-American story in which Segal’s character must deal with the aftermath of suppressing his “otherness” in order to succeed in mainstream America. As a Jewish-American screenwriter, Shapiro knew firsthand the tenuous nature of “Whiteness” that Jewish people like Walter experience firsthand. While the satire is often sharp, it fails in its observations about race, which are too heavyhanded to land much impact in a biting satire. Also, the role of Roger is underwritten since it is so much Walter’s story. However, both Michael Schultz and Denzel Washington bring just enough dimension to Roger so that he is not just some story device. Washington isn’t quite the charismatic leading man that he would later become, but he is charming and witty enough that we could see why Walter would want to stick by such a promising young man.
The Last Dragon (1985)
By Eugene Kang
From the 1970s to now, there has been a great cultural exchange between Black and Asian culture in America. Break dancing was inspired by young Black dancers imitating moves in kung fu films. The Wu-Tang Clan freely borrowed from martial arts movies and Asian culture in general. The exchange has been mutual as K-pop has appropriated hip-hop, break dancing and other aspects of Black culture to create captivating fusions that have taken over the globe.
So The Last Dragon was, in some ways, a visionary movie that observed and embraced this cultural cross-pollination in a fun, and sometimes quite silly, ode to kung fu movies. Leroy Green (Taimak), also known as “Bruce Leeroy,” is a young Black martial arts student who seeks to unlock the final level of his training (or “the last dragon”). On the way to achieving this last level, he gets entangled with gangsters, a beautiful VJ named Laura Charles (Vanity), and a formidable opponent named Sho’Nuff (Julius J. Carry III), the self-proclaimed Shogun of Harlem. The script by Brooklyn native Louis Venosta plays fast and loose with Asian stereotypes, but there is enough winking humor to keep this movie light and fun. There are also many examples of the cross-pollination of Black and Asian cultures. Leroy acts more “Asian” in his soft-spokenness and honor while there are some colorful supporting Chinese-American characters who talk “Black” and even clown on Leroy for his odd, Asian-inspired behavior. Schultz was able to fill his movie with enough fun jokes and references that, even though he didn’t spend his youth in this place and time period, he was still able to capture the youthful spirit of what is an actually a classic martial arts movie in a modern, American setting.
Woman Thou Art Loosed (2004)
By Alex Sitaras
From the very first moments of Woman Thou Art Loosed, the influence that religion and church makes on Schultz’s characters is felt immediately. Each of them is flawed and seeks a catharsis- or ‘loosening’- from the guilt and shame associated with wrongdoing, and to progress with healing. Michelle Jordan (Kimberly Elise) is on death row for murdering her “uncle” Reggie (Clifton Powell) who sexually abused her during her childhood. Michelle’s mother Cassey (Loretta Devine) was faced with the decision whether or not to believe her young daughter or new beau Reggie after she finds a crying Michelle in a closet following her rape. She decides to believe Reggie, and though she asks Reggie again years later whether or not he assaulted her daughter, Reggie never confessed. It’s apparent to us from the moment we see Reggie for the first time that something is wrong, but Cassey is oblivious, choosing comfort and lust rather than to be crushed by her boyfriend’s wretched act.
Woman Thou Art Loosed is primarily told through the lens of Michelle’s character as she speaks with T.D. Jakes, a real-life bishop playing himself in Schultz’s film. We observe repercussions in Michelle’s life as she is forced to experience abuse throughout her childhood without an advocate or even a mother to believe her. Given the death row setting, Schultz could’ve explored the morality, or lack thereof, behind the death penalty but instead he chooses not to, preferring to remain closer to his characters. So close that he in fact even observes Reggie explore a spiritual awakening and experience guilt, which is uncomfortable to watch given the extent of his depravity. Woman Thou Art Loosed is Schultz’s most recent film, released in 2004, yet it will not doubt resonate with audiences today and it precedes numerous films related to the #MeToo movement released post-2018.