Michael Schultz The Crossover King

In many films, I want to tell a story everybody can understand. But more importantly, I want an audience to come out of a film with more than what they went in with—thinking, feeling, laughing, crying.1 Michael Schultz

Between 1964 and 1985, Michael Schultz was Hollywood's major black director of feature films. Unlike other black directors, Schultz won acceptability and approval from the established studios, and he served as a formidable presence in stage and television direction as well.

Schultz was born into a working-class family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1939. With early dreams of becoming an astronautical engineer, he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin, but he later transferred to Marquette University and joined the Theater Arts Program.2

In 1964, he traveled to Manhattan and earned the position of assistant stage manager for the American Place Theater. Then he directed a number of Off-Broadway projects, before traveling to nearby New Jersey to continue gaining experience as a director. Schultz recalls: ''I eventually found work at the McCarter Theater in Princeton which was a resident rep company that did eight plays a season. I directed three of them. That was my first real directorial experience." 3

Soon afterward, he took a position as staff director for the Negro Ensemble Company, where he directed the play The Song of the Lusitanian Boatman, which won him the Obie Award for Best Direction for the 19681969 season.4 Schultz continued to work for another two seasons at the company before going to Broadway. In 1969, Schultz directed the production of Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? which brought him a Tony nomination for Best Director, and the play allowed him to direct his future wife, Gloria, as well as Al Pacino in his Broadway debut. Both Gloria (known then as Lauren James) and Pacino won Tony Awards—Best Supporting Actress for the former and Best Actor for the latter.5

Television directing followed in 1972, as Schultz took charge of the PBS version of Lorraine Hansberry's play To Be Young, Gifted, and Black. The project was shot in 16 mm film rather than the usual videotape, so the project gave Schultz his first film experience. His achievement with that play later landed him the directing position on the television adaptation of another play, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men, for which Schultz won the Christopher Award. In the 1970s he also directed a number of episodes of television series, including The Rockford Files, Baretta, Toma, and Starsky and Hutch.6

With these credits and experience, Schultz got the call to direct his first feature film, Cooley High (1975). The movie, obviously inspired by the success of American Graffiti (1973), presents the misadventures and challenges faced by inner-city black high school seniors. Similar to American Graffiti, Cooley High integrated a running sound track of songs contemporary to its period—specifically, the R&B music of the early 1960s, including artists such as the Supremes, the Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, Smokey Robinson, and others. But more importantly, the film provided a view of black youth not common at the time, and in so doing, it went a long way toward revealing the commonalities and the differences among black and white youth in their late adolescence.

Set in Chicago in 1964, the film opens with long shots of the city's business and riverfront areas, showing the urban splendor of the skyline; then, as the credits continue, the camera journeys across town, following an "el" train, to a less glamorous section of tenements and vacant, trashy lots. This montage of landscape tells the audience about class distinctions and racial segregation in the city, before introducing the two main characters of the story.

The story focuses on two senior friends: Leroy Jackson/aka Preacher (Glynn Turman) and Richard Morris/aka Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs). Preacher, living at home with his mother and his sisters, is a fast-talking, risk-taking teen who possesses the sensitivity and talent of a poet beneath his garrulous veneer. Cochise, living with his mother, father, and numerous siblings, is the gifted athlete who prides himself on the tough, but smooth image he projects. Foremost in their concerns are "making out'' with girls, socializing, and partying, and although Cochise appears to have more success with girls, Preacher does manage to eventually win the affection of his heart's desire—Brenda (Cynthia Davis), a young woman who succumbs to Preacher's poetry.

These black teens share escapades that lead them to the brink of trouble — ditching school, drinking alcohol, and joyriding in a stolen car. The latter leads to police confrontations and eventually to the death of Cochise. Losing his best friend, Preacher takes off for California to fulfill his dream of being a writer.

Displaying compassion for his teen protagonists, Michael Schultz delin eates their stories with an effective balance of humor and drama. By showing the earlier '60s, when fistfights, drinking wine, and smoking marijuana were the most extreme forms of teen behavior, Schultz provides a glimpse of the decade before Black Power, feminism, and antiwar activism would permeate Chicago and other parts of the country.

Schultz does an outstanding job in the sequences with Preacher, Cochise, and the other male characters, as their natural dialoguing and physical posturing capture the nuances of adolescence. Likewise, the director demonstrates an easy control in developing the chase scene where Preacher wildly drives the Cadillac, with the young male teens inside, to elude two white patrolmen in a squad car.

At the same time, two scenes that stand out in their poignancy are those containing women characters as well. First, the relationship that develops between Preacher and Brenda follows the familiar ''boy-eventually-wins-the-heart-of-the-girl-who-hates-him-at first'' story line. After a montage of the young lovers holding hands as they walk the neighborhood to the Temptations' popular song ''My Girl,'' Schultz presents the awkwardness of the teens as they become intimate. In the gentle sensuality of the love scene, Schultz allows the audience to experience the hurried groping that eventually becomes a nervous passion.

In another sequence, Preacher's mother comes home in the late evening tired and angry. She berates Preacher for being taken to the police station on the auto theft charge. She insists that while she works three different jobs, she depends on Preacher to set the leadership as the oldest sibling. She angrily instructs him to get his belt and prepare for his punishment, but when Preacher returns with the belt, he finds his mother has fallen asleep from exhaustion in the dining room chair. And as Preacher kisses his mother's forehead, the close shot of his expressive face shows both his pride in his mother and his shame at being arrested.

The popularity of Cooley High signaled a promising career as a Hollywood director for Michael Schultz. Completing a black-oriented movie that appealed to a wide audience made Schultz a likely candidate to become the premier black director at the time, as the early-'7os black urban action movies were beginning to lose their bankability. Remaining close to the comedy genre for his next film, Car Wash (1976), Schultz once again showed his confidence in presenting ethnic characters to a mainstream audience, as the movie mixes poignant dramatic moments and sometimes raucous humor.

With a script written by Joel Schumacher, Schultz presents an extensive set of characters in the tradition of director Robert Altman with films such as M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975). With thirty characters interacting during the course of one workday, Car Wash sets out to render the mundane, but humorous stories of Los Angeles characters from diverse ethnic, cultural, and class backgrounds. The plot—merely a series of loosely connected and sometimes overlapping episodes—reveals the dreamers, schemers, and in-betweeners, in a film that possesses opposing attributes: energetic but monotonous; fresh characterizations but yet stereotypes; and broad slapstick but poignant moments.

Of the numerous vignettes that function as extended jokes, two notable sequences exemplify the different types of humor within the film. The first example shows a verbal and satiric humor, as the director ridicules a parasitic preacher exploiting the black community. Similar to the parody that director Ossie Davis presented with his black minister/con man, Deke O'Malley, in Cotton Comes to Harlem, Schultz has Daddy Rich (Richard Pryor) riding his stretch limousine into the car wash, accompanied by four church sisters (the Pointer Sisters). Displaying his expensive clothing and jewelry, Daddy Rich magnetically attracts the workers to him—speaking nothing of substance, but saying what the workers want to hear. The more nonsense the preacher speaks, the more the workers love him. Eventually, a Black Muslim worker named Abdullah (Bill Duke) challenges Daddy Rich, stating that he ''talks like a pimp.'' Abdullah correctly labels the preacher, but intoxicated with the presence of Daddy Rich, the workers defend him from Abdullah's criticisms. With Pryor at the center of the sequence, the segment works effectively as a comedic piece, but simultaneously, it connects to a larger political reality of exploited workers blinded by the lure of material gain.

A second sequence demonstrates the more prevalent physical and situational humor. Following the radio news story about a mad bomber, one worker, Hippo (James Spinks), sees a frantic man (Professor Irwin Corey) clutching a brown paper bag while his car is being washed. Hippo and his buddy T.C. (Franklyn Ajaye) stalk the man; heroically, T.C. grabs the paper bag and runs wildly throughout the establishment yelling that there's a bomb. Everyone gets caught up in the chaos, and when T.C. slips and the paper bag flies in the air, everyone ducks for cover. The bag falls, and the bottle inside bursts—the bottle carrying the frantic man's urine sample.

From that level of humor, Car Wash sometimes shifts to a serious tone— particularly shown in the relationship that develops between Lonnie (Ivan Dixon) and Abdullah. Lonnie, who has served prison time, is the most trusted employee at the business, as he opens up and closes the establishment on occasion. When Abdullah is fired due to his lateness and his attitude, Lonnie attempts to persuade the boss to take him back, defending Abdullah's obvious confusion. As the film ends, Abdullah returns with a gun to rob the cash register, and Lonnie pleads with him to put away his weapon, telling Abdullah: ''Jails are full of thousands of young men just like you.'' As Abdullah breaks into tears from the overwhelming challenges of his life, Lonnie promises that he'll help him work things out. Here, one black man commits to helping another black man—not to save the money belonging to the establishment, but to save the potential of what Abdullah can become for himself and others.

Car Wash, marketed as a film where clowning and jiving prevail, might seem easy to write off as just a fluff piece, but the film possesses some valuable segments where it clearly exposes the very system of exploitation that it appears to accept. For his next two films—Greased Lightning (1977) and Which Way Is Up? (i977)—Schultz again utilizes the talents of Richard Pryor, the comedian who would become the dominant black film star of the late 1970s.

As told by the end captions of the film, Greased Lightning is based on the true story of Wendell Scott (Pryor), ''the first black stock car racing champion in America.'' It's the mid-i94os, and when Scott returns from the war, the only work available for blacks is at the nearby factory. But Scott has his own dream of owning a taxi service to raise money to open his own auto garage and to marry Mary (a very subdued Pam Grier). But when the taxi business fails, Scott decides to drive deliveries for a bootlegger.

Eventually, Scott is captured by the police, but he's saved from jail by Billy Joe Byrnes (Noble Willingham), a white man who owns the local racetrack. Byrnes figures that blacks will come to watch a black car driver, and whites will come to watch the black driver get killed by the white drivers— a great business gimmick. The strategy works, but Scott survives and becomes a local hero to the black community. Despite the blatant racial prejudice, by 1955, Scott is winning races. Then, in a montage that covers the next ten years, Scott continues to make a name for himself at numerous professional venues. Even after a near-fatal track accident, Scott enters the grand nationals and wins, beating his longtime nemesis, white driver Beau Welles (Earl Hindman).

Schultz was able to keep Richard Pryor on his best behavior in this project, and going beyond his comedic persona, Pryor manages to give Wendell Scott a controlled confidence. Schultz, for his part, manages to provide the audience with a film that contains more action than his previous outings. In fact, during the early portion of the film, he spends too much time showing Scott maneuvering through the backwoods and eluding the country cops. From long shots to tracking shots—from interior shots within the moving vehicle to exterior shots focusing through the windshield at Scott—Schultz shapes the car chases and racing scenes effectively for both action and comedy. The action delivers visual excitement to assist the film's pacing, while the comedy stretches from verbal humor to sight gags. To make the racing scenes more compelling, Schultz successfully combines factual footage and fictional images to enhance the realism and spectacle of the professional racing circuit.

True to its objective, Greased Lightning pays homage to an African American pioneer who embodied what the civil rights era was about in terms of a black man gaining access to his dreams. In doing so, the film notes the prevailing racial barriers and the various attitudinal changes that occurred from 1946 to 1965.

For his next film, Schultz calls upon Richard Pryor again for the lead role. In Which Way Is Up? (1977), Schultz and Pryor take on a story that begins with strong political implications, but unfortunately, the story diminishes into a jumbled ambiguity.

Adapted from director Lina Wertmuller's Seduction of Mimi (1972), Which Way Is Up? follows the odyssey of Leroy Jones, who at first works as a farm laborer, living with his wife, Annie Mae (Margaret Avery) and their children. Inadvertently, Jones has his photo taken with a labor leader, and the company that owns the farmland send thugs to force Jones to take a one-way ticket to Los Angeles. Leaving his family behind, Jones flees to the city, where he falls in love, woos, and wins the affections of Vanetta (Lonette McKee), an activist for the farmworkers. Over the following year, Jones and Vanetta live together and have a child.

Through a set of accidental events, Jones is recruited by the company and is sent back to his hometown as a supervisor of the company's fruit-canning factory. Once Jones returns, he assumes a double life, both personally and politically. He resumes his married life with Annie Mae while, on the other side of town, he maintains his life with Vanetta and their child. In addition, he later becomes involved with the minister's wife, Sister Sarah (Marilyn Coleman). The humor, at this point, revolves around the manner in which Jones juggles his relationships with Annie Mae, Vanetta, and Sarah.

At the end, Jones is abandoned by all three women, who indict him for his lying, insincerity, and selfishness. Jones realizes too late the mistakes he has made, and after facing his fears with the Company, Jones walks alone down the highway—optimistic about beginning his life over.

Presumably, the film examines Jones' journey into manhood. From his earlier weaknesses, he grows into a self-respect that comes in the film's final moments. Disappointingly, the African American characters—particularly those portrayed by Pryor—come off as broad stereotypes. Consequently, despite any connections to political issues of labor and class, the shallowness of the black characters overwhelms the director's efforts to be satiric and insightful. The strongest recommendation for the film revolves around several performances—Richard Pryor in three separate roles; Margaret Avery as his transformed wife; and Lonette McKee as a political activist.

Furthermore, Which Way Is Up? fails to display any of the flashes of visual delight that Schultz achieves in the previous effort, Greased Lightning. In some sequences the lighting appears faulty, while in other sequences, the pacing is lethargic. The film possesses an unevenness about it, and Schultz relies too much on Pryor's characterizations to lift the various scenes to an engaging level. Pryor does shine in spots, but anchored to the problematic script, even he fails to make the film a consistently compelling work.

The situation gets no better with Schultz's next film, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). Trapped somewhere between fantasy and flimsi-ness, this movie is painful to watch. The director who enjoyed such a splendid debut with Cooley High in 1975, now three years later is doing mainstream fluff not worth the price of the popcorn that one would need to endure sitting through it.

Based on the title, songs, and loosely structured story of the same-titled Beatles album, this movie offers a mixture of American and British performers who sing their interpretations of the album's songs. The story— narrated by Mr. Kite (George Burns), the Mayor of Heartland—concerns young Billy Shears (Peter Frampton), the grandson of the famous musician-bandleader Sgt. Pepper who played magical instruments with the power to make people's dreams come true. Billy inherits his grandfather's musical instruments and talents and forms a band composed of his three childhood friends, the Henderson Brothers (the Bee Gees). With the support of his girlfriend, Strawberry Fields (Sandy Farina), and management by his stepbrother, Dougie (Paul Nicholas), Billy and the band become a hit. In Los Angeles, they record with a powerful music company, controlled by B. D. Brockhurst (Donald Pleasance), where they face big-city temptations, evil rock bands, and power-hungry villains. Fortunately, Billy and the band come to their senses, save the instruments from the evil villains, and consequently rescue the world from moral destruction.

With its $12 million budget, Sgt. Pepper's, at that time, was the largest film ever given to the control of a black director,7 and unfortunately the film failed to be a box-office success. Part of the problem, as Schultz viewed it, was that the audience disapproved of Peter Frampton and the Bee Gees "impersonating" the Beatles.8 Additionally, another weakness in the film revolves around the one-character voiceover and narration by the elderly Mr. Kite. The film's other characters do not deliver any dialogue, and the audience only hears their voices when they sing. The technique prevents viewers from connecting with individual characters, and the senior Mr. Kite is not the most appropriate narrator for a story targeted at a younger audience.

However, Schultz's direction of Sgt. Pepper's does warrant attention in that it confirmed him as a crossover director who could successfully bring African American experiences to a mainstream audience and who could complete Hollywood projects that bear no pronounced racial or ethnic focus. With the latter accomplishment, Schultz emerges as a predecessor to black directors who would later work on films that centered primarily on white characters—directors such as Bill Duke (The Cemetery Club, 1992), Thomas Carter (Swing Kids, 1993), Kevin Hooks (Black Dog, 1998), Forest Whitaker (Hope Floats, 1998), and Carl Franklin (One True Thing, 1998).

Of interest, producer Robert Stigwood had approached Schultz to direct the now-famous film musical Grease, with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John; however, Schultz's schedule didn't allow him to work with Stigwood until the Sgt. Pepper's project. Why was Michael Schultz pursued as a director who could traverse the color line and excel in the popular milieu? No easy or singular response offers an answer. Part of the offer to direct Grease and Sgt. Pepper's perhaps revolves around Schultz's past experience with theater and television; he had already proven his directing skills in those popular mediums. Another consideration might have been his ability to obtain praiseworthy film performances out of Richard Pryor; if Schultz could bring out the actor in a stand-up comedian, perhaps the same would hold true with rock performers. A more provocative and revealing possibility, however, surfaces in a 1983 interview. When asked if his blue eyes, fair skin, and Jewish surname gave whites the comfortable feeling that Schultz was "more like themselves and therefore smarter and more trustworthy," the director replied: "That could be. And the name Schultz is always a shock to them. My experience at getting jobs all through my career has been that I got in the door because they didn't know I was black. . . . Now, whether or not the fairness of my skin or the color of my eyes or whatever helped them get over their own personal prejudices, well, that's possible.''9

The box-office disappointment of Sgt. Pepper's, of course, provided ammunition for those naysayers who felt that black directors were not competent to handle mainstream material; but, as the movie found an audience in Europe, others concluded that Schultz was a pioneer. In a business that doesn't tolerate financial failure—particularly by people of color—Schultz managed to survive.

With his next movie, Scavenger Hunt (1979), other than to offer some visual sight gags and a long chase scene, Schultz appears content with doing a journeyman's job with the project. Because the sight gags are so numerous, they do manage to give energy to the movie, but many are predictable and thus largely forgettable.

Scavenger Hunt is one of those all-star comedies—similar to The Can-nonball Run (i98i)—that follows a formula found in all-star films of the era's disaster genre, such as The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974), and The Towering Inferno (1974). The objective seems to be to gather stars, give them a common set of challenges, and allow them to overlap their characters' motivations and pursuits. Unlike the ensemble cast in Schultz's multicultural Car Wash, Scavenger Hunt presents more notable white celebrities in major and cameo roles—Richard Benjamin, James Coco, Ruth Gordon, Cloris Leachman, Roddy McDowall, Richard Mulligan, Tony Randall, Pat McCormick, Vincent Price, and, in an early screen appearance, Arnold Schwarzenegger. As for the actors of color, Cleavon Little and Scat-man Crothers round out the cast.

With some twenty-five characters providing speaking roles that are integral to the plot, the motivations of the characters are too complicated to explore. The plot—as thin as it is—begins as millionaire eccentric Milton Parker (Price) dies, bequeathing his $200 million estate to those surviving family members and acquaintances who are able to collect the sundry items listed in a set of rules and clues. Some of these items, of course, are com-monplace—a wedding gown, an inner tire tube, a toy bear—but others are unusual—a suit of armor, a live ostrich, a "fat" person. Different points are awarded for the various items, which, within a time limit, are to be placed in designated areas located on the estate grounds. Organizing themselves into five teams, the characters engage in their hunt, participating in many sight gags and vacuous dialogue along the way.

By the time the movie reaches its happy ending, a number of types have been targeted—overweight people, people who stutter, Native Americans, Asian Americans, corrupt lawyers, and biker clubs. If the writing had been penetrating and satirical, the allusions to these targets could have been more edgy and provocative. However, the film merely attacks these characters in broad, stereotypical fashion, resulting in insensitive and insulting depictions.

In a peculiar way, Sgt. Pepper's and Scavenger Hunt can be viewed as

Carbon Copy 1981
Director Michael Schultz speaks with his actors, George Segal, left, and Denzel Washington, center, about a scene in Carbon Copy.

the two consecutive movies that comprise Schultz's bland period. As mainstream vehicles, the two stand as safe, harmless excursions, which sidestepped any serious exploration of dramatic issues of the day. In a striking departure, Schultz's next comedy, Carbon Copy (1981), possesses a smartly written script by Stanley Shapiro that presents a workable balance of humor and emotions without becoming either ludicrous or melodramatic.

The film follows Walter Whitney (George Segal), a successful corporate executive who has a beautiful home with all the trappings appropriate to his station in life: a lovely wife, Vivian (Susan Saint James); a domineering boss/father-in-law named Nelson Longhurst (Jack Warden); a resentful stepdaughter, Mary Ann (Vicky Dawson), who resents him; a close friend and lawyer, Victor (Dick Martin); and a dedicated Latina maid, Bianca (Angelina Estrada). Abruptly into his life comes Roger Porter (Denzel Washington), a young African American with an attitude and an accusation—Walter is his biological father.

After being convinced of their relationship, Walter attempts to help

Roger, whom he sees as a ghetto kid with no aspirations. But in that process of acknowledging and helping Roger, Walter discovers that his family and friends desert him. As credit cards are taken from him, and with no other resources, Walter joins Roger to stay in a less than desirable Watts apartment. Soon Walter discovers that the world offers him little sympathy, as he ultimately must take a job shoveling manure to earn a minimum wage. Surviving it all, Walter learns that Roger has graduated early from high school to attend medical school at Northwestern University. As the film ends, Walter decides to drive back with Roger to the Midwest with hopes that they can shape a father-son relationship.

Schultz handles this story effectively as he strikes convincing notes of humor that often overlap the biting satirical observations about race relations in America. The film carries a vigor in its pacing that matches its tone, and consequently Schultz doesn't allow the dialogue or the moments in the scenes to become too heavy-handed. Rather, the scenes reveal and confirm the old and painful truths of racial misconceptions and how they interconnect to class issues. In one of the early sequences in the film, Walter and Vivian converse in the lush greenery of their backyard as he attempts to convince her to adopt a black youth for the summer. Keeping her physical distance from Walter and waving a gardening tool like a weapon, Vivian defends the position of her affluent class: ''If they [blacks] see a better way of life, they'll want it permanently." But Walter argues that given their financial status, they must help the underprivileged. Vivian impatiently asks: ''When will we stop owing? They already have welfare, low-rent housing, special job programs, and four of their own television series. When will we stop owing and be even?''

Walter recognizes too much of his own weaknesses in his wife's perspectives, and he must directly come to terms with the sugar-coated racism of his boss/father-in-law. Nelson, who already knew of Walter's past relationship with a black woman, philosophizes that white corporate America is the ''true minority'' that keeps the country running. In his arrogance, Nelson critically reflects: ''All power to the people? They had it once—it was called the stone age.''

But at the heart of the film is the awakening and transformation that occurs within Walter as he gets to know his son and himself. In an early scene, Walter asks his lawyer-friend, ''what does a father owe his son?'' The answer to this question for Walter becomes clear as his initial resentment eventually grows into a respect for his son, Roger. The interplay between these two characters is structured carefully by Schultz, as their early acidity slowly moves to a mutual tolerance. In their roles, Segal and newcomer

Washington create a believable pair. Both actors are competent to pull off the necessary comedic touches, as well as the dramatic moments that play out at the end.

Given the strong points in Carbon Copy, Schultz's next outing, The Last Dragon (1985), is a disappointment. With the backing of Motown mogul and executive producer Berry Gordy, the film contains some mid-1980s dance and uptempo tunes that are appealing, but a story and characters that make a mediocre mix.

In the decade of martial arts popularity following the death of legendary Bruce Lee in 1973, the gimmick for the story appears marketable. After completing training with a martial arts Master (Thomas Ikeda), the protagonist Leroy (Taimak), a young black martial artist who lives in Harlem and who dresses in Chinese coolie attire, attempts to attain the highest level of knowledge by finding a higher master living somewhere in New York City. While pursuing this quest, the young hero crosses paths with two megalo-maniacs—Sho'nuff (Julius J. Carry III), a self-proclaimed martial arts master of Harlem; and Eddie Arcadian (Christopher Murney), the owner of a video game empire. Leroy has an ongoing rivalry with Sho'nuff, but he becomes Arcadian's nemesis. As Arcadian maneuvers to kidnap Laura Charles (Vanity), the host of a rock-video television show, Leroy is luckily at hand to dispatch his thugs. While saving Laura and seeking the Master, Leroy must also win the respect of his family members, especially his younger brother, Richie (Leo O'Brien).

With this type of plot and cardboard characters, the tone of the film swings from the humorous to the silly. And though the inclusion of footage from a number of Bruce Lee films—such as Fists of Fury, The Chinese Connection, and Enter the Dragon—invigorates the action of the movie, even Bruce Lee is unable to save this movie from its erratic development. Adding to the over-the-top portions of the movie are Schultz's decisions to give many of his interiors a carnival-like atmosphere, through the use either of bright, pastel colors or of flat-looking dance-performance numbers set on soundstages.

The Last Dragon further suffers from inane dialogue and unbelievable characters that vacillate between fantasy and stupidity. One facet of the dialogue has Leroy speaking in a simplistic, broken English to emphasize his adaptation of Chinese manners. But the technique is too contrived and makes Leroy's character more wooden and unappealing. Leroy's articulation of mystical ideas and thoughts is aptly labeled by his rival as ''mumbo jumbo.'' In general, the other characters in the film remain cartoonish and insipid, discouraging an audience to care about them to any degree.

Finally, one would expect Schultz to make up for the film's weaknesses with the action sequences. Though Schultz does an adequate job directing those moments, nothing dazzles in technique or in energy level. In some ways, the gimmick of showing actual Bruce Lee footage works against The Last Dragon. Although Taimak has a certain cuteness as the protagonist, he, of course, is no Bruce Lee. Even as the story calls for the character, Leroy, to copy the physical moves of his idol, Bruce Lee, the fight sequences of The Last Dragon remain only a dull copy of action seen elsewhere. Then, in the final showdown between Leroy and Sho'nuff, Schultz resorts to visual effects to show the power of ''the glow'' that Leroy achieves after realizing that he, from within, is already a martial arts master.

In The Last Dragon Schultz seems to be sleepwalking—going through the visual motions of putting together a story that lacks any passion or spirit of fun. Then, in that same year, Schultz helmed Krush Groove, a project that works as an ingratiating introduction to hip-hop culture for mainstream viewers. Unlike films before it, such as Rappin' (1985) and Beat Street (1984), Krush Groove utilizes the real-life artists to portray the movie's principal roles.10 The initial idea, according to Schultz, was to shoot a concert movie of a traveling tour of rap artists, but with Warner Bros. Studios' success from Prince's Purple Rain (1984), the same studio was willing to take a chance on a low-budget film using actual performers.11 Shot in only twenty-six days in Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens on a $3 million budget,12 Krush Groove is a musical film that delivers as an entertainment vehicle for a young audience across racial lines.

Based on the experiences of the now-legendary hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, the movie has charm. As the story unfolds, an enterprising black youth named Russell Walker (Blair Underwood), working with his white partner, Rick (Rick Rubin), hustles to get his brother Run (Joseph Simmons) and his musical partners DMC (Daryll McDaniels) and Jam Master Jay (Jason Mizell) recorded and into the musical limelight. Calling their rap group Run-DMC, the performers have complete confidence in Russell to promote them and Kurtis Blow (as himself) to produce them. For funding, Russell takes a loan with Jay B (Richard E. Gant), a local, small-time hood. Along the way to success, Run is attracted to both the physique and musical talents of Sheila E. (as herself), a vocalist-percussionist who maintains a funk-R&B band and who holds little appreciation for rap; at the same time, Kurtis Blow, scouting new talent, becomes appreciative of the potential of three aspiring, heavy-set rappers who call themselves the Fat Boys (as themselves). As the settings move from clubs to concerts to stage contests, the audience is exposed to various rappin' styles and lyrical themes, from the political to the egotistical to a celebration of overeating.

Krush Groove displays an intoxicating energy and a tone to match. Schultz pulls the best from his performers in creating appealing screen personas. Allowing Blair Underwood to carry the strongest acting challenges in the film, the performers display their musical styles in a story that keeps them natural and believable. Kurtis Blow's ''If I Ruled the World'' is both egotistical and political; Sheila E.'s ''Love Bizarre'' and ''Holly Rock'' are explosive and salacious; and the Fat Boys' ''All You Can Eat'' is humorous and self-affirming. In one sequence showing a musical contest, brief camera time is also given to other aspiring popular groups, specifically New Edition, the Beastie Boys, and LL Cool J. Schultz also carefully includes some of the verbal expressions of the hip-hop culture, such as ''def,'' ''illin','' ''frontin','' and ''chillin','' to provide authenticity.

Krush Groove is not an intellectual journey through the burgeoning hiphop culture, but it serves as a movie where fun and entertainment meet in a compelling manner. It is not surprising, then, that Schultz might continue to explore hip-hop culture in his next feature film, Disorderlies (1987).

The film features the then-popular rap group who had appeared in Krush Groove, namely, the Fat Boys—Markie (Mark Morales), Buffy (Darren Robinson), and Kool (Damon Wimbley). Despite any dynamic verbal qualities or energy in their music, in this movie their large physiques become the center of most of the childish humor. As the title suggests, the three work as orderlies in a Brooklyn nursing home that's cited as the worst in the country by a national newspaper. In Palm Beach, Winslow Lowry (Anthony Geary) is deep into gambling debts and needs to hasten the demise of his rich Uncle Albert (Ralph Bellamy). Geary hires Markie, Buffy, and Kool to attend his uncle, hoping that their ineptitude will finish off the ailing man. As Darren and Damon clumsily carry out their duties, Mark spends his time chasing Uncle Albert's pretty black maid, Carla (Troy Beyer). As the story progresses, Wins-low's plan backfires, as Uncle Albert becomes rejuvenated by his ''Boys''; the senior millionaire even begins to use hip-hop phrases, such as ''step off, homeboy'' and ''stop illin'.'' As a final tactic, Winslow attempts to kill Uncle Albert, the Fat Boys, and Carla with explosives, but that too fails, leading to a happy ending.

No doubt, the story sounded interesting in development meetings as a vehicle for the rap group, but the resulting movie is predictable and irritating to watch. For all purposes, the Fat Boys are merely the Three Stooges in blackface; the humor never rises above the level of the familiar Moe,

Images Dexter Slapping Larry
Michael Schultz, far right, sets up a shot in Livin Large with T.C. Carson, far left, who portrays protagonist Dexter Jackson.

Larry, and Curly. In addition to the consistent fat jokes, the movie thrives on slapstick and sight gags—slapping, kicking, breaking furniture, falling into swimming pools, falling off horses, and car stunts. All of these gags have been viewed before and executed with more deftness and impact. The only break in the silliness occurs when the music by the Fat Boys is played over the action, particularly during the end credits when the movie mercifully ends.

In his next film project, Schultz begins Livin' Large (1991), similar to the opening of Car Wash, with a high-angle view of a city, moving the camera down closer into the urban maze, while credits roll and a hip-hop tune delivers the lyrics of the title song. The story presents Dexter Jackson (Terrence ''T. C.'' Carson), an African American broadcasting school graduate who wants to break into television journalism and become a news anchorperson like his idol Clifford Worthy (Bernie Mclnerney). Working at his family's dry cleaning business with his sister, Nadine (Loretta Devine), and girlfriend, Toynelle (Lisa Arrindell), Dexter carries his video camera with him as he delivers and picks up clothing around the city of Atlanta. After capitalizing on an opportunity, Dexter is hired by the executive producer of the news program, Kate Penndragin (Blanche Baker), to do remote stories about the inner city. Kate, a heartless news exploiter, demands that Dexter refine his ghetto mannerisms and that he expose the scandalous side of the black community. In Dexter's obsession to reach his goal, he compiles stories that distort the black community and people whom he once called friends. Mysteriously, each time Dexter airs a story that hurts the black community, he notices that his appearance changes: his hair grows straighter, his complexion lightens, and his nose and lips become thinner. At one point, he even loses his ability to dance rhythmically, as he is unable to find the beat on a nightclub's dance floor. Eventually, Dexter comes to his black senses and is hired as the coanchor with his newscast idol, Clifford Worthy.

From the contemporary meaning of its title—living a life of material gain —to the final triumph of the protagonist, Schultz wants the audience to connect to one strong message: blacks must remain true to their ethnic selves. However, the upbeat ending still leaves unanswered a number of questions raised within the film. Can a person displaying distinctive ethnic attributes ever become accepted by the mainstream without "refining" or changing those attributes? If a person of color becomes successful financially, must he/she move out of the old neighborhood to complete the attainment of that success? Can blacks transform the media simply by becoming anchors in front of the camera, when the power and ownership behind the scenes remain in the hands of whites? Certainly, these questions are much too formidable for a comedy to tackle, but the film's ending remains unsatisfying due to these raised and unresolved issues.

As a director here, Schultz refrains from pushing beyond the expected and the acceptable in his filmmaking. After sixteen years of filmmaking, Schultz must have had an urge to give the story a certain visual complexity, but Livin Large simply falls in line with his previous six films—''popcorn movies'' that are filling until the viewer leaves the theater.

Michael Schultz offers a curious study of a black director in Hollywood. Undoubtedly a success as a Hollywood director, he worked steadily through three decades of shifting tastes in movies, and his contribution in that regard must not be reduced or dismissed. But somehow the promise and possibilities emerging from Schultz's first four films didn't become realized in his succeeding seven films. In particular, as the 1980s saw the emergence of a "New Wave'' of young black directors, Schultz was in a position to serve as a veteran leader. But, instead, the younger filmmakers moved him toward the rear of the auditorium as they took center stage, and one is left won dering why and how that happened. Certainly, Schultz possesses the skills to direct provocative and memorable films, such as Cooley High, Greased Lightning, and Carbon Copy, that entertain but do not shy away from stimulating a viewer on a deeper political and cultural level. Hopefully, Schultz will emerge again and crown his mainstream career with the kind of films that reflect the artistic qualities that shaped his earlier works.

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Responses

  • ANNIKA
    When do we stop owing and are even Carbon copy movie?
    1 year ago

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