“Imagine a movie about a car wash,” begins the latest installment of TV One’s Unsung Hollywood.
That initial idea was the brainchild of white music-P.R. guy Gary Stromberg. Now imagine a studio head taking Car Wash seriously without a Stromberg. Another white guy, Joel Schumacher, who wrote Sparkle and The Wiz long before directing St. Elmo’s Fire and A Time to Kill, whipped up the script. With such beginnings, how did Car Wash manage to hit hard with black audiences?
Enter director Michael Schultz. Schultz, for those who don’t know, is the black director who helmed the iconic film Cooley High, released in 1975, just a year before Car Wash.
Once he found out more about Car Wash, Schultz admitted to wanting to pass on it. After being persuaded to stay on, he tackled the script, significantly rewriting it. Of utmost importance was amping up the interaction between the young, militant car wash employee Duane/Abdullah, Bill Duke’s debut film role, and Lonnie, the older, ex-con employee, whom the late Ivan Dixon—known for the provocative film Nothing but a Man—came out of retirement to play.
Schultz was so committed to the storyline, he fervently fought Universal brass to keep it. Duke’s commentary on what that storyline meant to him and the King-less/Malcolm X-less society at the time underscores Schultz’s decision.
With the flamboyant Lindy, played by Antonio Fargas—perhaps best known as Huggy Bear from the 1970s TV show Starsky and Hutch—Car Wash was so ahead of its time, especially considering the real-life Caitlin Jenners and Lorraine Coxes of now.
Plus, Abdullah’s aggressive confrontation with Lindy regarding his sexuality produces one of the film’s most memorable lines: “I’m more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you’ll ever get,” Lindy quips. That confident sexuality proved too hot for broadcast television, however, so scenes of the beauty-school student were replaced with previously cut scenes of Danny DeVito and Brooke Adams to air on TV.
But music is what drives Car Wash the most. Because Stromberg, whose notable clients included Ray Charles, first envisioned Car Wash as a Broadway musical, songwriter-producer Norman Whitfield (the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination” and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”) was on board even before Schultz.
The songs, which launched the Los Angeles-based group Rose Royce’s career in a big way, actually guided much of the film. Rose Royce’s Kenny Copeland shares the backstory of how he, the trumpet player, ended up singing “I Wanna Get Next to You,” and comedian-actor Franklyn Ajaye, who played T.C., explains how important the song was for the scene in which he tries to get Mona, the waitress who is the object of his affection, to take his love seriously.
There’s no overstating how critical the Grammy-winning hit soundtrack was to the film’s success. Because the soundtrack was released first, audiences knew the “working at the car wash” hook almost a month before ever seeing the movie.
Interestingly, Car Wash played at the Cannes Film Festival, where it surprisingly won two awards and almost took home the coveted Palme d’Or. Unsung touches on the significance of key cameos by stars like Richard Pryor, whose Daddy Rich character is admittedly a riff on prosperity preacher the Rev. Ike or, in today’s landscape, Creflo Dollar; the Pointer Sisters; and George Carlin. However, the show never delves deeply into how Car Wash was misleadingly promoted as a Richard Pryor-George Carlin film.
One of the main stories Unsung Hollywood wants to tell is an ebony-and-ivory one in which then-rising Universal studio exec Thom Mount—who notes that because his native Durham, N.C., was half black, he grew up interacting with black people—unites with black director Michael Schultz to overcome internal resistance at the studio and create magic. Other successful films Mount oversaw include Back to the Future, E.T., Scarface and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
While Mount’s support was indeed critical, his commentary about the lack of diversity at Universal then doesn’t sound so yesteryear. Neither does the process by which films by a black director and key black talent get made at any studio.
Considering that director Ava DuVernay also reportedly rewrote much of Selma, whose original writer was a white man, Schultz’s Hollywood experience also rings true today. So does the studio’s cluelessness on how to market the film, even though Car Wash had a significant white cast.
Regardless of how Car Wash ranks in your movie collection, this episode of Unsung Hollywood is yet another bittersweet reminder that there’s a reason that this show exists, and it looks like it will be a long time before that reality is changed.
TV One will air Unsung Hollywood: Car Wash on Wednesday, Aug. 5, at 8 p.m. EDT.
Ronda Racha Penrice is a freelance writer living in Atlanta. She is the author of African American History for Dummies.