9th 05 - 2017 | no comment »

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.”


2nd 11 - 2015 | no comment »

To Sleep With Anger (1990)

Director/Screenwriter: Charles Burnett

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

A teapot filled with marbles that falls from the fridge and breaks. Leaves placed under the feet of a sick man confined to his bed. A broom brushing the tops of a man’s shoes, filling him with terror. These are the portents and prescriptions of the superstitions that drive the humorous, but still rather horrifying tale of a family plagued by the literal devil they know from L.A. Rebellion director Charles Burnett.

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Burnett is best known as a chronicler of the African-American experience in his home city of Los Angeles. His 1978 debut feature, Killer of Sheep, is a somber look at the soul-deadening effect of poverty on a slaughterhouse worker from Watts and his own temptation to sin. His vibrant second film, My Brother’s Wedding (1983), again focuses on an L.A. family, with the clash between a ne’er-do-well and his striving older brother providing another type of African-American story. To Sleep With Anger, Burnett’s third feature, is his first to use professional actors, but the thread linking it to his earlier works remains strong. The folklore his parents and grandparents shared with him during his formative years offered him a different template for exploring the African-American community, one that allowed him to tell a horror story of his own that can easily join other cautionary tales passed through the generations.

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To Sleep With Anger opens during a nightmare. Gideon (Paul Butler), a retired transplant to Los Angeles from the Deep South, sits in a chair as though posing for a portrait like the one of his ancestor hanging on the wall behind him. Burning Bush-like flames emerge from a bowl of fruit sitting on the table next to him. Soon, Gideon’s feet are on fire as well, and the flames lick at the legs of the wooden chair that supports him. When he awakens, he complains to his wife Suzie (Mary Alice) that he can’t find his toby, an amulet his grandmother gave him to ward off evil spirits. He then invites her unsuccessfully to join him in bed for an afternoon delight; this is the last time we’ll see Gideon feeling so frisky. Burnett is about to plunge him, the rest of the characters in To Sleep With Anger, and us into a world of superstition, family strife, and earthly minions of the devil working to snatch troubled souls at their most vulnerable.

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The monster in the story is a genial elderly man from “back home” named Harry (Danny Glover) who shows up on Gideon’s doorstep the day after his nightmare after 30 years’ separation. Gideon and Suzie welcome him with open arms and tell him that he can stay as long as he likes. They introduce him to their oldest son Junior (Carl Lumbly) and pregnant daughter-in-law Pat (Vonetta McGee). Every time Pat tries to shake Harry’s hand, her unborn baby kicks her—a sure sign to us, if not to her, that something is rotten in the state of Harry. Gideon’s younger son, Babe Brother (Richard Brooks), is a lazy, unstable disappointment to his parents and the cause of frequent family arguments. He is married to Rhonda (Reina King), a real estate broker who detests her in-laws’ homespun ways, but not their services as babysitters; Babe Brother and Rhonda keep late hours working and partying, and frequently fetch their boy Sunny (DeVaughn Nixon) from Suzie and Gideon’s in the middle of the night.

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Harry’s appearance and the steady introduction of a slew of down-home cronies who are more than willing to abet Harry’s attempts to corrupt Babe Brother with corn liquor and dice reminded me of the return of the ghostly lover of the grieving protagonist and his increasing disruption of her life in another 1990 film, Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply. In the latter film, the emotional dysfunction that allowed in the supernatural mischief makers is obstinate, unresolved grief. In the same way, Gideon and his family are made vulnerable to Harry and his bad intentions not because of a lost toby, but because Gideon’s anger and disapproval fracture his relationship with Babe Brother and Rhonda and infect the rest of the family. It only takes Harry walking Gideon through a railroad depot, where Gideon has a vision of working like a slave to lay track, to awaken a deeper anger, one that lands him in a mysterious coma.

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Burnett works slyly to illustrate how the accumulation of grievances or unintended consequences of seemingly harmless deeds can work like a magical curse to create an annus horribilis for anyone. Gideon’s fury with Babe Brother, as well as his sedentary lifestyle and fatty diet, suggest he is ripe for a stroke. Suzie’s nostalgia and overly compliant nature allow Harry to roost, and with Gideon out of commission, to decimate their flock of chickens and ruin their carefully tilled vegetable garden. Junior’s self-righteousness turns him from being his brother’s keeper to nearly being his brother’s killer. Babe Brother and Rhonda represent a couple who want too much too fast, easy pickings for a similarly inclined Harry.

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Nonetheless, Burnett is serious about his fable. Harry, too, lost his toby decades before, and there’s no question that Burnett wants us to believe he is the devil. It is hinted that Harry murdered several people back home, and he proudly brandishes his weapon like an elderly Mack the Knife. He sets some very lascivious eyes on Linda (Sheryl Lee Ralph), an old girlfriend from back home who has been saved and who advises Suzie to poison Harry if she gets the chance. Linda is like a beautiful, white-haired, avenging angel, singing gospel songs that cut Harry to the quick. Harry eventually is defeated, and Gideon’s family is healed in a hilarious denouement that closes this tale in a celebratory manner.

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Danny Glover has Harry’s oily manners and menace down to an exact science. Burnett said Glover was worried about being typecast playing older characters (he was 44 at the time), but he asked to read for Harry unprompted after spending some time with the script. Brooks plays Babe Brother with all the pain and anger of a child who doesn’t know how to do what’s expected of him and is condemned for it. When he finally asserts that his name is Sam, Samuel, he finally lets go of his flailing adolescence. Mary Alice, with the face of an angel, is particularly good in a scene where her old beau Okra (Davis Roberts) suggests that she should marry him if/when Gideon fails to recover because they are lodge brothers—her widening eyes and tight mouth show the emotional depths that her warmly superficial character rarely reveals. I also really enjoyed Reina King, who could have come off as a bitch supreme after sitting in her car in front of her in-law’s house during Sunday dinner, but who brings a lot more nuance to her largely self-involved character when Babe Brother really starts going off the rails.

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Cinematographer Walt Lloyd’s rich colors that somehow manage to suggest sepia add to the fairytale trappings of this fantasy, and film editor Nancy Richardson shows the great timing that would boost her to a major career in this, her second feature. Most of all, Burnett creates a fulsome community of saints and sinners, chicken coops and pigeon cages, gold watches and rabbit’s feet—a colorful gumbo of African-American life that was rare to see on screens in 1990 and that remains all too rare to this day.


16th 10 - 2007 | no comment »

My Brother’s Wedding (1983)

Director: Charles Burnett

2007 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

The CIFF has, for more than a decade, presented a program called Black Perspectives that brings the stories and work of Africans and their descendants in other countries to the attention of the movie-going public. This is an important program for Chicago because it helps the city’s large African and African American community access their often-hidden heritage in filmmaking. The program helps the rest of us recognize the legacy of great films this community has produced.

One of the most outstanding African American filmmakers working today is Charles Burnett. His name is barely a blip in the minds of movie-goers of all races and ethnicities, and that’s a real crime. Burnett has created some of the most original portrayals of the lives and culture of the African American community available today. However, like most independent filmmakers, he is chronically short of funding and distribution options. Therefore, it was a great service for the CIFF to revive one of his earlier films, a thoroughly independent affair populated with amateur actors and family members called My Brother’s Wedding.

For days now, I’ve confused the name of this film in my head, calling it “My Brother’s Keeper.” This mistake isn’t only the product of my aging mind. It goes pretty much to the heart of this film’s central dilemma. Pierce Mundy (Everett Silas) is 30 years old, lives at home with his parents, and works at their dry cleaning business in a poor section of Los Angeles. His failure to launch stems from training in a line of work (heavy equipment operator) that had more applicants than jobs and his own immaturity. He doesn’t have a girlfriend and looks forward to the day he can knock around with his ne’er-do-well best friend Soldier (Ronnie Bell), due to be released from prison in a couple of weeks. When Soldier returns, Pierce faces a difficult choice: will he choose to support his real brother or his best friend, the “brother” whose keeper he has always tried to be?

Pierce’s mother (Jessie Holmes) is a no-nonsense matriarch who, nonetheless, puts very little pressure on Pierce to get out and make something of his life. She puts up with the random wrestling matches her husband picks with Pierce in the back of the shop and only instructs Pierce to visit his grandparents and see that they get their medication and any other help they might need. Her older son Wendell (Dennis Kemper) is her pride—a lawyer engaged to marry Sonia (Gaye-Shannon Burnett, the director’s wife), a lawyer from a well-to-do family.

MyBrothersWedding7%20edit.JPGPierce despises Sonia and her family. He doesn’t feel comfortable in their middle-class milieu and takes every opportunity to insult Sonia. When he is compelled to have dinner with their family, he accuses them of being crooks and exploiters; the only person he treats with respect is their Latino maid. It is pretty apparent, however, that Pierce’s sense of aimlessness, inferiority when compared with Wendell and Sonia’s social class, and loyalty to the ’hood are affecting his behavior rather than any strong social convictions.

My%20Brother%201%20edit1.JPGSoldier does return, and he and Pierce wrestle and run through the streets like 10-year-old boys playing hooky from school. When the pair reaches Soldier’s home, Soldier embraces his mother and father with warmth and sincerity, promising that he is home for good and won’t get sent away again. Unfortunately, Pierce’s attempts to find Soldier a job have been unsuccessful. One prospective employer says it’s too bad Soldier is getting out: “He’s one fellow they should have locked up and thrown away the key.” Predictably, Soldier returns to carousing, even shocking Mrs. Mundy by using her store when he thought she wouldn’t be around and lying on newly cleaned clothes to have sex with his latest conquest. This funny scene has Soldier call to Pierce to bring him and his lady a glass of water while they are in flagrante. Pierce’s apparent nonchalance signals that this isn’t unusual behavior for Soldier.

In an unexpected twist, Soldier is killed in a car accident. His funeral is scheduled for the same day as Wendell and Sonia’s wedding, for which Pierce is to act as best man. Pierce clearly would rather skip the wedding, but his mother is furious to have him own up to his family responsibilities. Pierce pathetically tries to get Sonia to reschedule the wedding. Then he has hopes the funeral can be postponed, but out-of-town relatives are coming in. His choice, like his life, is muddled. In trying to be both brothers’ keeper, he fails them both.

MyBrothersWedding5.jpgThis film clearly was made on a shoestring in real locations that give the film the breath of life. Some of the film’s humor comes from a teenage girl who hangs out at the dry cleaners talking to Pierce about her “stomach” (aka, menstrual) pains and asking Pierce to go with her to the prom in two years, when she’s old enough to have a prom. This young girl is a real natural in her awkward flirtation and baldfaced resentment at not being taken seriously.

Another humorous scene has two men enter the shop to try to rob it. Mrs. Mundy, a cool customer, reaches for her gun under the counter, but never has to show it. She just shoots a warning gaze at the pair, and they take off. Hilariously, the scene continues in the getaway car, as a hoochie girl and her boyfriend complain that they were counting on that money and give these sad sacks a very hard time.

You can’t say any of the “actors” give a performance. Their line readings are flat and stilted. But because they know these characters, are these characters, the film is rich in atmosphere. Silas and Holmes, in particular, anchor this film with their son/mother relationship that’s as true as life.

Few directors of any race or ethnicity are able to tell stories that bring an entire community alive. Burnett has a very different take on similar territory that Spike Lee explores. His is largely apolitical, more interested in culture than outright polemics. Nonetheless, in his simply complex tales, he makes his points about the place of African Americans in the larger society.


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