Prefiguring the Black director boom in the work of Michael Schultz

Keith Corson, assistant professor of film, University of Central Arkansas

Sep 30, 2021

Michael Schultz's Cooley High

Below, enjoy an expanded edition of Keith Corson's essay on our upcoming Michael Schultz retrospective, written for the Fall 2021 edition of In Practice.

Before Spike Lee or John Singleton, there was Michael Schultz. The most prolific African American director in Hollywood prior to Spike’s arrival in the late 1980s, Schultz directed 14 commercial features between 1972 and 2004. He has also had equally important parallel careers directing for both the stage and television. Schultz was a major figure in the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s and since the 1970s has been one of the most reliable television directors around. 

Despite his accomplishments in cinema and beyond, discussions regarding the history of Black directors omit Schultz with an alarming frequency. Books and documentaries often craft a timeline of African American cinema beginning with the independent race films of Oscar Micheaux, moving to the Blaxploitation-era offerings of Melvin Van Peebles and Gordon Parks (senior and junior), and then skipping to Spike Lee’s arrival with his 1986 commercial debut She’s Gotta Have It. To minimize the career of Michael Schultz is much more than an oversight. It is an erasure of a remarkably accomplished director whose impact can be seen throughout the past half century. Among other contributions, Schultz laid the foundation for the Black director boom of the late 1980s and 1990s. His impact can be seen most clearly in the two most celebrated films of the era.

Seen as creative breakthroughs that captured Black experiences with fresh insight and creativity, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood (1991) received near universal critical acclaim when they hit theaters, and both works were subsequently added to the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry as soon as they became eligible. While neither film took home any Oscars, both Lee and Singleton received Academy Award nominations for best original screenplay. Still, for anyone familiar with the films of Michael Schultz, both projects seem eerily familiar.

Singleton’s coming-of-age story Boyz n the Hood clearly evokes Schultz’s 1975 breakout hit Cooley High. Both films center on a brainy protagonist and his athletic phenom best friend as they make their way through the final year of high school in the inner city. Replacing Cooley High’s Chicago Near North Side for South Central Los Angeles, Boyz n the Hood also ends with the tragic death of the athlete best friend at the hands of local gang members followed by his friend pouring liquor on the ground in a mournful salute. More than sheer coincidence, Singleton graciously acknowledged that he used Cooley High as the model for Boyz n the Hood. Yet, while Singleton saw the film as a clear homage to one of the most influential Black-directed films of the 1970s, the connections largely escaped the watchful eye of film critics and Academy members heaping praise on Boyz n the Hood. The failure to identify and acknowledge the influence of Michael Schultz would have been shocking had it not already happened two years earlier.

Michael Schultz's Car Wash

Car Wash

If Boyz n the Hood loosely structured around Cooley High, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing can only be understood as a brash repurposing of Michael Schultz’s 1976 hit Car Wash. While Singleton borrowed story structure and dramatic beats from Schultz, Spike Lee’s screenplay for Do the Right Thing has parallels to Car Wash that are broad, specific, and too numerous to list here. The connections and echoes are difficult to properly cover in the hour-long class discussions I have when teaching these films as comparative texts. Both films use ensemble casts, a single city block setting, and narratives covering the span of a single day to create microcosms of urban America. They both feature generational tensions between white ethnic business owners and their sons, radio DJs as reflexive commentators, disenfranchised Black militants, boom box–obsessed characters, cinephilic callbacks to specific films, and wise old men played by actors defined by their contributions to the civil rights struggle (Ossie Davis and Clarence Muse, respectively). The films even share nearly identical scenes where a child is almost hit by a car and then humiliated in front of a crowd of onlookers as he gets spanked by his mother. Simply put, the similarities are abundant and undeniable. Still, the echoes of Car Wash were not part of the discussion among critics when writing about Do the Right Thing in 1989. Instead, Spike Lee was celebrated as a singular auteur without an antecedent.

A far cry from John Singleton paying homage to Schultz, Spike Lee has never cited Car Wash as a point of inspiration. When I asked him years ago about the numerous connections between Car Wash and Do the Right Thing, his response was defensive and dismissive. Artists often struggle to talk about their own work and we can only speculate about the reasons why Spike is unwilling to acknowledge (or is possibly unconscious of) the profound impact Schultz has had on his own work. Regardless, the responsibility of making the connection and acknowledging the work of Michael Schultz rests with film scholars, critics, and audiences, not with Spike Lee.

"The continuum of African American cinema is incomplete without a thorough accounting of Michael Schultz’s contributions."

For my money, Cooley High and Car Wash are richer films than Boyz n the Hood and Do the Right Thing. This has nothing to do with Schultz’s films being first and having some sort of claim on originality. Instead, Schultz’s work is more thoughtful and well crafted than Singleton’s, with Cooley High aging far more gracefully than Boyz n the Hood as the years pass. Similarly, the socially mimetic nuance of Car Wash leads to far richer and more complex political readings than are allowed by Spike’s heavy-handed didacticism. This does not diminish the value of Singleton or Lee, both of whom are immensely talented and historically significant filmmakers. Instead, it simply emphasizes the value of Schultz’s films.

Michael Schultz’s career is long overdue for a critical reevaluation. Both aesthetically and contextually, Schultz belongs at the center of any historical conversation of Black directors. Whether or not his name is instantly recognizable, we live in a world created by Michael Schultz. When we see a performance from Samuel L. Jackson or Denzel Washington, we should note that it was Schultz who directed their big-screen debuts (with 1972 Together for Days and 1981’s Carbon Copy, respectively). When we see a rapper turned actor like Will Smith, Ice Cube, or Mark Wahlberg headline a popcorn movie, remember that Schultz paved the way for hip hop artists being more than musical accompaniment when he cast Run-DMC and the Fat Boys in Krush Groove (1985) and Disorderlies (1987). To marvel at the media empire that Tyler Perry has created, it’s important to recognize that Schultz’s Gospel Theater adaptation Woman Thou Art Loosed (2004) made its way to the multiplex before any of Perry’s films were theatrically released. When we celebrate the mainstream box office success and ability to convince studio executives to entrust blockbuster budgets to an African American director like Ryan Coogler or Ava DuVernay, it’s crucial to acknowledge Schultz’s work at Universal in breaking the glass ceiling of both “crossover” box office success and scale of production with Which Way Is Up? (1977) and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978). And when we praise the artistry of Spike Lee or John Singleton, we should understand that Schultz made equally compelling films. 

The continuum of African American cinema is incomplete without a thorough accounting of Michael Schultz’s contributions. He’s a remarkable filmmaker who persisted in an era when nearly every other Black screen artist was shut out of Hollywood.


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