Before there was Spike Lee, before John Singleton, before Mario Van Peebles and Charles Lane, there were Gordon Parks and Michael Schultz. Both Parks and Schultz were directing films back in the early '70s, back when there was very little made of the fact that both men were black.
With Lee, Singleton, Van Peebles and others getting all this attention, how does Schultz feel about it?
"Well," he said, "I'm a bit troubled by this emphasis on the young, the 'new breed,' but it's all part of the pattern, the minimization of black history," he said.
"The blacks don't have any real heroes because all of them have been whitewashed, and this denial of black history destroys self-esteem. People think it all started with Lee, and it didn't. It's all part of the trend to go with the new and ignore the old. I do find it a little painful. It does hurt, but then I've always been behind the scenes. I've always had a low professional profile."
Schultz has been doing films since 1971. He went mainstream in 1974 when he did "Cooley High," and after that, did films including "Car Wash," "Greased Lightning," "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." "Carbon Copy," "The Last Dragon" and "The Disorderlies."
"Sgt. Pepper" was an all-white film based on the music of the Beatles, and if you ask Schultz how a black man was given that assignment, he says, "It was because they knew I could handle music. I was offered the job of directing 'Grease,' but I was busy at the time, doing post-production work on another film, so I had to decline.
"I also got it because it was produced by an Australian who wasn't diseased by racism. He had seen 'Car Wash' and was impressed with it."
Schultz's newest film is "Livin' Large." It opens here Friday. It's a comedy about a young man who wants to make it as a television personality and is given the chance to do so when a TV newscaster is killed at the scene of a hostage takeover. Dexter (T.C. Carson) picks up the mike, takes over and before long is being groomed as the anchor man at a station in Atlanta.
"I really wanted to film in Baltimore, but it would have cost more, so we went to Atlanta where the teamsters are not deeply entrenched as they are in Baltimore," said Schultz. "Atlanta also has a greater talent pool. We ran the numbers and saw that it would cost us $800,000 more to film in Baltimore."
Most of the money behind "Livin' Large" is German. How come?
"I don't really know," said Schultz. "It came out of the blue. It came from a German financial group that seemed to be intensely interested in black films and me. It may also be because of my name."
He laughs when he says that. Schultz says things like this, anthere is no edge to it. He appears to be a man who is completely at ease with himself.
"It's interesting," he said. "Hitler had one of the largescollections of African artifacts. There is frequently a love-hate relationship between the bigot and the object of that bigotry."
"Livin' Large" has mostly unknowns in the cast.
"I wanted the blackest actors I could find," said the director. "I wanted that contrast. I wanted someone with definite features ,, because the movie, while a comedy, is about a black who is trying to make it in the white world and is turning white to reach that goal. The movie is about sameness. Lots of young blacks are grappling with that issue. Do we have to change to something else in order to succeed?
"Everything is ironed out on television, and we are now beginning to acknowledge the fact that there is interest in variety, that we all have to make contribution to the American whole. That's why Arsenio Hall is successful. He's not Johnny Carson. People want variety."
There is much humor in "Livin' Large," but some of it may be on the cruel side. There are those barbs against women, for instance. Once more, they are called "bitches," white and black.
"I know that some people think these movies put women, particularly black women, down, but the strongest woman in the cast is Dexter's girlfriend," said Schultz. "She has her hard edges, but she is a positive female force. She saves Dexter from selling out. She is his anchor, his rock, and it's all done with humor, a valuable form of communication," he said.
"Humor diffuses hatred. If you can get people to laugh, it improves the situation, rather than worsen it."