When Michael Schultz decided to pursue filmmaking in the 1970s, there were very few directors in Hollywood who looked like him.
Now, he wants to use his six-decade journey to inspire the next generation of aspiring Black and brown visual storytellers to tell stories that matter to them. The iconic director and producer is among the many industry professionals appearing at the HBCU Power TV & Film Festival, celebrating the 10th anniversary of Morehouse College’s Cinema, Television and Emerging Media Studies (CTEMS) department, from Aug. 25-27 at the college’s Ray Charles Performing Arts Center.
Schultz is hosting a screening and Q&A for his 1975 coming-of-age comedy “Cooley High,” which is two years shy of its 50th anniversary. Presenting the film to a younger audience allows Schultz to both educate Generation Z on what it took for Black storytellers to gain respect in mainstream cinema and witness their reaction to his work.
“A lot of young people think that Black movies started with Spike Lee,” Schultz, 84, said. “But there’s an entire period and huge gap of knowledge in terms of Black contributions to the world of cinema that young audiences or Black film students should become more aware of. It’s great to see a young audience experience it.”
Schultz established his career as the blueprint for Black directors shifting between working on feature films and episodic television backed by major Hollywood studios. He oversaw episodes of “The Rockford Files,” “Baretta” and “Starsky and Hutch” before “The Wonder Years” reboot, “Black-ish,” “All-American” franchise and “Black Lightning.”
For his Broadway directorial debut, 1969′s “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie,” the Obie Award-winning founding member of the Negro Ensemble Company guided a young Al Pacino in a Tony Award-winning performance. Earning a nomination himself for directing the play led to Schultz booking a made-for-TV adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” for PBS in 1972.
“My theory in college was I’d land in New York, build a reputation in theater as a director and someone will offer me a movie,” the Marquette and Princeton University alumnus said.
By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Black directors like Gordon Parks, Ossie Davis and Melvin Van Peebles were creating opportunities as guerilla filmmakers with little to no studio backing. Schultz realized his background in theater and easygoing demeanor with actors were the sparks that could get more studios to see his vision and prevent him from long wait times to get projects greenlit.
“A good director is someone who is able to pull out the best work from every person involved in that collaborative process of making a film, creating a play or doing a TV show,” he said. “They have knowledge in all of the areas involved: photography, makeup, costumes, music and know how to deal with the psychology of the people that he or she is working with.”
Coming to the HBCU Power TV & Film Festival reminds Schultz of his knack for spotting exceptional talent. He cast Samuel L. Jackson in his first on-screen role in the 1972 interracial love story, “Together for Days.” That same intuition led Schultz to place Denzel Washington in his first film, “Carbon Copy,” a decade later.
Schultz also directed Richard Pryor in “Car Wash,” “Greased Lightning” and “Which Way is Up?” Schultz, who met Pryor through late executives Clarence Avant and David Picker, appreciated how the comedian could naturally entertain an audience without much direction.
“Richard would never do the same thing twice, but everything he would do would be so interesting, funny or brilliant,” Schultz said. “I learned to let the people with genius do what they do and find ways to weave that into the story.”
Schultz was offered a job directing “Grease” but ended up directing the 1978 reimagining of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” because he was in post-production for “Which Way is Up?” The long-form music video’s $18 million price tag earned Schultz the largest budget for a Black director in Hollywood at the time.
Despite “Sgt. Pepper’s” getting panned by critics, Schultz was proud that he was able to incorporate Black acts like Stargardt, Earth, Wind and Fire and Billy Preston into the project. He was starting to burn out and needed to recalibrate, so he took a brief hiatus from feature films.
“I made more money on that movie than my three previous films put together,” Schultz said. “We had what we needed to make the film the way I and the producers had envisioned it. We had all of these great music acts, and I wanted to put some color in this world.”
In 1985, Schultz directed the hip-hop-centric “Krush Groove,” featuring Run DMC, LL Cool J, Sheila E., Kurtis Blow, the Fat Boys and Blair Underwood for the first time on the big screen. Crowdfunding with the other producers to cover the film’s $1 million budget, he convinced Warner Bros. Records to get its film division to license the groundbreaking film.
“It accelerated the growth of hip-hop spanning the globe,” he said.
That same year, Schultz directed the cult classic “Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon.” Now that the writers strike has halted his television work, he’s teamed with writer Louis Venosta — 38 years after the martial arts film’s release — to develop a new enterprise including a graphic novel series with an origin story.
“We’re getting ready to start a Kickstarter campaign for that,” Schultz said. “We’re talking with people about doing a Broadway musical based on the movie, and gaming producers. We’re gonna...take this property to a whole new level.”
Despite format changes for film and television, Schultz continues to remain passionate about creating visual experiences that portray Black life in a positive light. Getting in front of audiences, especially young people, reminds Schultz that he can use film and television as teaching tools to transform audiences and build future generations of filmmakers.
“I like finding ways to tell stories that will inspire and uplift us as a human race,” Schultz said. “There’s so much negativity, violence and darkness out there, so it’s incumbent upon those who know better to put out the light and messages that will make people think or act better.”
HBCU Power TV & Film Festival
Aug. 25-27; “Cooley High” screening and Q&A with Michael Schultz, 7 p.m. Aug. 26. Free for Atlanta University Center faculty, staff and students with ID. General admission tickets $5-$120.
Ray Charles Performing Arts Center at Morehouse College, 900 West End Ave. SW, Atlanta. 323-546-8182, eventbrite.com/e/hbcu-power-tv-film-festival-tickets-689687723547