Car Wash (1976)

Director: Michael Schultz

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The American New Wave of the 1970s saw a great flowering of independent films. The ’70s were an especially fruitful time for African-American filmmakers, freed in part by pioneering director Melvin Van Peebles’ Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971) to tell stories about their lives and their communities their own way. Filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, including Charles Burnett, Julie Dash, and Larry Clark, have won well-deserved recognition not only for the films they made, but also for the generations of African-American filmmakers they mentored. But black filmmakers who had other points of entry into the industry have made their indelible mark as well. Michael Schultz is one of them.

Schultz, a Milwaukee native and multidegreed graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Marquette, and Princeton, has directed for the stage, screen, and television, with nearly 100 TV and film credits to his name, including a 1972 TV adaptation of his lauded stage version of Lorraine Hansberry’s To Be Young, Gifted and Black. An overview of his work shows care in his choice of projects and a consciousness of his responsibility to the African-American community both on and offscreen. At a 2011 Directors Guild of America event honoring him, he said of working in New York on The Last Dragon (1985):

I was shocked to see that there was only one black crew person out of a crew of about 120. About two weeks into the shoot, the one black crew guy got fired. My hands were so full that I couldn’t fight that fight then. And the refrain kept coming back, ‘We can’t find any qualified people.’ So I said, ‘I’m coming back to New York, and I’m going to make a movie with an all-black crew just to prove that’s bull.’ I came back with Krush Groove and wound up with an 80 percent black crew. That became the bed that Spike Lee used to launch productions, and he carried it far beyond me with workshops, internship programs, and really developed a crew base in New York.”

Schultz’s first major calling card as a film director was Cooley High (1975), improbably produced by Roger Corman’s American International Pictures and penned by screenwriter Eric Monte, whose high school memories of growing up in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project would also form the nexus of the hit TV series Good Times (1974-79). Schultz elicited energy and authenticity from his largely nonprofessional cast and, in the process, made Cooley High a coming-of-age classic.

Based on the unexpected financial success of Cooley High, Schultz found a place inside Hollywood’s major studios, which were struggling to survive and change with the times. His first assignment, for Universal Pictures, was Car Wash, written by future big-time director Joel Schumacher and featuring megawatt entertainer Richard Pryor at the height of his fame in its ensemble cast. Car Wash is a day in the life of the owner and workers of the Dee-Luxe hand car wash in Los Angeles, and as such, depends heavily upon the strength of the characters to keep the film engaging. Schumacher packed his script with types, some of which are an awkward fit to the material. It’s a tribute to Schultz’s directorial skills that he was able to take what could have been little more than a potentially offensive sitcom and bring to life a small, specific world instead.

A lot of films open with a car moving toward and stopping at the destination where the action will take place. This film, wise to its Los Angeles location, opens with a car stuck in traffic (something we saw again perhaps as one of the many film homages in the 2016 Oscar-nominated La La Land). George Carlin plays a blabbering cabbie whose professions of racial tolerance are an unending stream of insults for Marleen (Lauren Jones, the director’s wife), the black hooker in the back seat who looks too exhausted to care. Looking at $19 and change on the meter and then at the contents of her coin purse, Marleen slinks stealthily out of the cab and locks herself in the ladies room at the car wash for a makeover. Thus, we arrive at the film’s mise-en-scène.

From the introduction of the motley cast of characters in the ordinary act of reporting for work, the film feels real, even exciting, despite its focus on a deeply mundane business. The “wet” crew, who work hosing, hand-soaping, and cleaning the car interiors, gradually filter into the employee locker room, joking and signifying as they change into their orange jumpsuits. T.C. (Franklyn Ajaye) fusses with his enormous Afro to look his best when he spots the object of his persistent affection—the lovely, long-haired, pink-miniskirted Mona (Tracy Reed)—walking to her waitress job across the street. Would-be transsexual Lindy (Antonio Fargas) is equally fastidious about her appearance as she winds her carefully coiffed hair in a protective fishnet. Floyd and Lloyd (Darrow Igus and Otis Day) slide into the locker room performing the new opening for their duet singing act; cigar-chomping Lonnie (Ivan Dixon) drolly remarks in his basso profundo voice that “it’s getting better” as he exits the room. Duane, newly minted as Nation of Islam adherent Abdullah (Bill Duke), shows up late, a repeat infraction silently noted by car wash owner Leon (Sully Boyar) as he views the crew at their stations from the front office.

Eventually, the film’s award-winning (Cannes, Grammy) score by Norman Whitfield kicks off as the soon-to-be best seller for Rose Royce, “Car Wash,” blares from the speakers that pipe music from a disco-flavored radio station. Like Francis Ford Coppola’s American Graffiti (1973), Car Wash prefers a diagetic soundtrack, emphasizing the importance of the music to its characters when Leon tries unsuccessfully to change the station and T.C. runs repeatedly to a nearby pay phone to try to win concert tickets from the station so that he can ask Mona out.

Schultz knows how to balance straight-up comic bits with personal moments that lend weight to these often-unremarked-up lives. Leon’s cashier and cosmetics-obsessed squeeze on the side, Marsha (Melanie Mayron), is frightened by wet crew member Chuco (Pepe Serna) as she does her nails while sitting on the toilet, but through her considerable acting chops, she transcends Marsha’s humdrum, dateless existence in a fabulously awkward, but successful flirtation with an aging lothario (Al Stellone) paying for his wash. When she shouts her last line, “I’ve got a date!” we share in her astonished triumph. The script skewers Leon’s son, Irwin (Richard Brestoff), as a middle-class version of a radical chic warrior, eschewing a day in the front office to labor alongside the “workers” and read aloud passages from Mao’s little red book. But Brestoff’s engaging sincerity wins our affection, as well as that of the wet crew. By contrast, Abdullah is far too angry for the car washers or us to relate to, and his pain and confusion are revealed almost too late in the film to soften our regard for him. It’s a credit to the great work of Ivan Dixon and Bill Duke, both of whom would go on to successful directing careers, that a potentially violent confrontation between their characters becomes a heartfelt window into the shared pain and camaraderie of black manhood. Most intriguing to me was Marleen, a largely silent character whose own self-regard oozes from her even as she declares her undying love for Joe, whereabouts unknown, in lipstick on the men’s bathroom mirror.

The white folks in this film are the least interesting and most often humiliated with toilet humor. A rich Beverly Hills snob (Lorraine Gary) drives her spotless Mercedes into the car wash, hysterical that the vomit her son (Ricky Fellen) dutifully expelled out the passenger window will erode the car’s finish if it isn’t removed immediately; inevitable, after the crew in orange tends to her needs, her son barfs all over her as they start to drive away. In another fairly unfunny scene, Prof. Irwin Corey plays a man mistaken for a mad bomber the radio announcer says has been setting fires all over Los Angeles with Molotov cocktails. The wet crew springs into action to get rid of a paper-bag-wrapped pop bottle found in his car and ends up breaking what turns out to be a urine sample on the pavement.

Finally, I suppose I need to talk about Richard Pryor, who almost stops the film dead in its tracks. He plays Daddy Rich, a celebrity preacher who touts the ministry of greed to his faithful followers at the car wash who tend to his stretch limo like it is a holy relic. He is, I suppose, a better aspirational figure than a bejeweled gang leader, but Abdullah calls him out for the pimp he is. This is not a funny scene, and it interrupts the pace of the film for Pryor’s star turn. Fortunately, the Pointer Sisters, who play his female entourage, sing “You Gotta Believe” with all the razzle-dazzle that puts people like Daddy Rich in the plush life. I breathed a sigh of relief when they all drove away.

I’ve barely touched on the many vignettes and characters teeming in this mostly joyful, sometimes soulful film. Michael Schultz seems to love them all and the rich multiethnic gumbo they comprise. Car Wash stands like a beacon between the 1965 Watts riots and the 1992 L.A. riots with a vision of what things might look like if we could “all get along.”

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