The Last Dragon: Michael Schultz & The Glow of '70s Black Cinema
The 1970s witnessed a relative explosion of American Black-focused filmmaking. Starting in the 1960s, narrative fiction films featuring Black casts and plots dealing with national racial unrest made their way into cinemas (Raisin in the Sun, 1961; The Cool World, 1963; Gone Are the Days!, 1963; Nothing But a Man, 1964; Black Like Me, 1964; One Potato, Two Potato, 1964; Dutchman, 1966). The international accolades that many of these films garnered served, in part, as an impetus for a structurally and financially decaying Hollywood studio system to switch course.
With well-documented flops such as 20th Century Fox’s near-bankrupting Cleopatra (the highest grossing/highest budgeted film of 1963, which still came at a loss of nearly $14 million) and Hello, Dolly! (1969, costing its backers an estimated loss of $10 million as it tried to replicate the success of The Sound of Music ). Hollywood began to veer away from bloated spectacles and pursued slightly more risk-averse programming. A turn to low-budget and sometimes independently produced films coincided with a global outpouring of successful overseas movies dealing with more contemporary themes and material. In an attempt to replicate the success of the French New Wave and these other attention-garnering movements, the American film industry was primed for a drastic shift toward a rejiggered system.
America’s “New Hollywood” began to emerge in a recognizable way during the late 1960s, with films such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), The Graduate (1967), and Easy Rider (1969). In relinquishing studio control to a newer generation of maverick artists, Hollywood began to realize much bigger returns on smaller budgets. Further expanding the possibilities of changing trends in industry practices, Warner Brothers became the first studio to hire a Black director, Gordon Parks, to helm a feature on a modest budget. Parks handled the daunting task admirably, all while under constant studio supervision because of the color of his skin. He not only wrote the novel and script, but also scored the film, served as a producer, and oversaw every nearly every aspect of production. His success with The Learning Tree (1969) was a milestone that helped to validate the viability of Black-focused filmmaking to Hollywood, paving the way for the most productive decade of Black filmmaking in the United States: the '70s.
Hollywood was jolted when it saw the returns on several early so-called ‘Blaxploitation’ films, and consequently afforded opportunities to Black talent behind the camera for the first time in its history. ‘Blaxploitation’ is alternately viewed as a positive cultural phenomenon and, by others, a derogatory and demeaning label lumping together the efforts of Black film talent throughout the 1970s. Richard Roundtree (of Shaft  fame) has given several interviews lamenting the way his and the work of other Black artists was shuffled under the umbrella term. Shaft made studios very aware of the potency of Black audiences, returning $12 million on a meager million-dollar budget. This film, coupled with Melvin Peebles' revolutionary Sweet, Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), created opportunities for Black directors that had never before been possible.
Michael Schultz was one of these filmmakers, seizing his opportunity to jump behind a camera. His debut made-for-TV film, To Be Young, Gifted, and Black (1972) is vastly underappreciated for how remarkable a bow it actually was. Schultz, who had an established background in theatre, utilized his connections with the talents of many of the graduates of the American Negro Theatre (ANT) and members of the Negro Ensemble Company (NEC) to help realize his goal of making Hollywood films*. Schultz’s critically-lauded Broadway production, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, featured his wife, Gloria, and an up-and-coming-Al Pacino. Garnering several Tony Award nominations in 1969, that play’s success prompted the New York public broadcasting station, WNET, to bestow Schultz with a directorial position for To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
Schultz never looked back, quickly establishing himself as one of the leading directorial talents of his generation – black or white. Unarguably, he became one of the most important and successful filmmakers in the history of American Cinema, breaking down walls for Black creatives that must have seemed incredibly daunting throughout the span of his fifty-year career (that's still going strong).
Schultz’s films from the 70s are some of the most profoundly political and engaging depictions of Black lives, yet the director’s first two big screen productions were met with only a fair amount of success. Schultz was producer Robert Buchanan’s third choice for a property he was developing about an interracial romance. Buchanan approached Schultz on the recommendation of playwright William Branch after both Gordon Parks and Ossie Davis were rendered unavailable, as they were working on Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Black Girl (1972), respectively. Schultz agreed to direct Together for Days (1972), but the process proved to be somewhat contentious, with the white producer, Buchanan, banning the Black playwright, Branch, from the Atlanta sets and reworking much of the script Branch had provided.
Little is known about Together For Days, as it never secured a distribution deal. It was, however, notable for being the debut of a young theater student from Morehouse College, Samuel L. Jackson. Schultz’s ensuing film, Honeybaby, Honeybaby (1974), also suffered at the hands of a young, inexperienced producer, Jack Jordan, who sought to capitalize on the Black-action film trend with his idea for a North by Northwest-esque thriller set in Beirut.
Purportedly, the final version of Honeybaby, Honeybaby was a dismantling of Schultz’s delivered product; this is all the more believable, as Jordan is also given the dubious credit for simultaneously butchering the other Black-helmed production he was overseeing - Bill Gunn’s unclassifiable masterpiece Ganja & Hess (1973). Schultz went about his work undeterred, paving roads in the industry via work on popular television programs such as Starsky and Hutch.
Schultz's big break came when his burgeoning television career caught the attention of notorious head of American International Pictures, Samuel Z. Arkoff. Throughout the early '70s, AIP established itself as a driving force behind the thriving Blaxploitation film boom. Due to their low costs and often regional drive-in roll outs, AIP's production model was well suited to more “controversial” product. However, not everyone was pleased with their output of cheaply produced action pictures that seemed to monetarily capitalize on audiences' hunger for Black characters.
A notable shift in their production slate occurred in the mid-1970s, possibly prompted by the detonation of a car bomb that incinerated studio executive’s Richard Zimbert’s car. The attack was attributed to the sometimes-militant Black activist group, the Coalition Against Blaxploitation (CAB). For only the second time in the studio’s history, it hired a Black director to make a Black film. With the release of Cooley High (1975), Michael Schultz had finally been given the chance to exert full artistic control over a feature film, and he took full advantage of the opportunity, creating an iconic coming-of-age film which the studio marketed as ‘the Black American Graffiti (1973)’.
Cooley High displays many of Schultz’s directorial stamps: positively depicting Black protagonists amidst the backdrop of a harsh, unaccommodating world; actively celebrating Black culture (particularly, here, Motown music); and offering nuanced and heartwarming depictions of Black communities. He would maintain many of these thematic and stylistic concerns throughout his career, and they are well highlighted in his follow-up to Cooley High, which was almost immediately green-lit after Schultz became the new pride and joy of AIP, his portrait of young Black America grossing a cool $13 million on a budget of $750,000.
Car Wash (1976) is, at least in this writer's humble opinion, a perfect film; a genre mash-up of social realism, musical, and comedy that lovingly highlights Black culture and incisively, yet never heavy-handedly, explores contemporary frustrations of Black masculinity, generational divisions, class injustices, and racial discrimination in America. In many regards, it can be seen as a precursor to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989). Car Wash has a brief number featuring Richard Pryor and the Pointer Sisters (the first of several Pryor/Schultz collaborations), boasts a Grammy-winning soundtrack (unconventionally produced before the film was made), and caught the attention of the global film community when it was nominated for the Golden Palme d’Or at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival.
However, the studio backing the project, Universal Pictures, was slightly disappointed with the film’s theatrical performance; it was a critical and commercial success but, in the studio’s opinion, not as successful as it should have been. This perceived ‘failure’ was ultimately attributed to a decline in the popularity of themes featuring Black casts and Black filmmaking talent. Recalls Schultz: “There was a thought that films with a Black cast wouldn’t play well internationally – I found that to be totally erroneous with my picture, Car Wash, that played really well over the world with everybody at the surprise of everybody.”
Unfortunately, to the Universal Studio executives and many other industry higher-ups who resolutely refused to point the finger of blame inwards, ‘validation’ of this suspected decline came the following year, as the failure of The Wiz (1978) - a Black re-imagining of The Wizard of Oz (1939)- sounded the death knell for the 1970s Black filmmaking boom. Because if Michael Jackson couldn't pack them in, who else could?
Berry Gordy, Motown, and the Disappearance of Black-Themed Filmmaking
Berry Gordy III’s career in multiple media industries is nothing short of remarkable. The high school dropout-cum-professional boxer grew up in Detroit, where his father had relocated in order to pursue opportunities in the automotive industry and dodge the hostilities of the rampantly unpoliced KKK, who were primarily headquartered in the American South (odd bit of trivia: the half-brother of Berry Gordy I, James Gordy, was President Jimmy Carter’s grandfather).
Sadly (or perhaps fatefully), Berry Gordy III’s boxing career was cut short when he was drafted into the Korean War. Upon returning to the States in 1953, Gordy married, got his GED, and opened a record store that, strangely enough, combined the sale of jazz records and 3-D glasses. In his spare time, Gordy had taken up song-writing. When his record store failed, Gordy looked for employment in a car manufacturing plant, but was unsuccessful. Family connections led him instead to working with the owner of a talent club, and he formed a friendship there with Jackie Wilson.
Wilson recorded one of Gordy’s earliest songwriting efforts in 1957, “Reet Petite”, which became an international success. That same year, the ambitious songwriter stumbled upon a very talented vocal group calling themselves the Matadors. That band was led by singer/songwriter Smokey Robinson and would later rename themselves the Miracles. With the encouragement of Robinson and a small $800 loan from his family, Gordy began Tamla Records in October of 1959 and, in 1960, incorporated this small label as the Motown Record Corporation (Motown being a portmanteau of the Detroit monikers, Motor Town).
The label was a phenomenal success, backed by Gordy’s talent for recognizing and recruiting predominately Black musicians. The first feature to prominently showcase Gordy’s stable of Motown artists was the incredible neorealist drama, Nothing But a Man (1964). Politically-minded, Peabody-winning documentarians Michael Roemer and Robert Young highlight the struggle of a Black everyman (future Spook Who Sat By the Door  director Ivan Dixon) trying his damnedest to live a normal life in the American South, striving to authentically portray the Black experience with their first fiction film foray. In consulting numerous Black organizations throughout the South, they came upon the music those communities were listening to, most of which were products of Motown.
Following a relocation to LA in 1972, Gordy quickly became enamored with the film industry which, at the time, had just begun to actively embrace Black-themed productions. He immediately culled together the resources for a biopic, Lady Sings the Blues (1972), starring Diana Ross as tormented Jazz musician, Billie Holiday. The movie was a smash hit, receiving five Academy Award nominations and garnering the support of numerous influential critics. The accompanying Motown soundtrack? Took the number one spot on the Billboard charts. Naturally, Gordy was hooked.
Gordy’s unprecedented success in both the music and film industry, perhaps unsurprisingly, led to an exacerbation of his already well-documented control tendencies. He fired director Tony Richardson from his next film project, Mahogany (1974), over a casting dispute and assumed the role himself. The final product was a moderately successful collaboration with Paramount, but it was a wildly uneven film. Roger Ebert summed it up as “a big, lush, messy soap opera, so ambivalent about its heroine that we can’t even be sure the ending’s supposed to be happy. And yet it’s unabashedly commercial and sure to be an enormous hit. Diana Ross inspires great fantasies even when they don’t add up to anything. The movie’s got rich costumes, romantic music, decadent playboys, socially redeeming values and a fable of rags to riches. Why should it have to make sense?”
New York Times critic, Vincent Canby, similarly recognized the charming incoherence of the plot, yet lauded Gordy for his “undeniable energy and canniness.” Canby concluded his review with a backhanded compliment for the Motown mogul: “Two scenes and a couple of good performances don’t make a movie, but Mr. Gordy is more aware of how movies are made than most directors who’ve devoted their lives to perfecting junk.”
The lukewarm response to Mahogany further stoked Gordy’s desire to relive the high brought on by the success of Lady Sings the Blues, as his next attempt to capture critical and audience attention was a somewhat-encouraging co-production with Universal Studios. The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976) starred Richard Pryor in the titular role of baseball pitcher, Bingo Long. Based loosely on William Brashler’s eponymous novel, the film follows a group of Black baseball players attempting to independently establish themselves outside of the confines of a racially segregated athletic world. Encouraged by positive reviews Bingo Long, Berry decided to go for broke, pouring his vast array of resources into adapting a 1974 Broadway Black-cast musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Thus, the regrettable (though not unwatchable) big budget mess The Wiz was born.
Gordy’s second joint effort with Universal Pictures, The Wiz raised some red flags immediately during pre-production. The final roster was slated to feature Gordy’s leading lady, Diana Ross, but this decision was very much made against his will. Gordy was reluctant to cast Ross, feeling she was too old to play Dorothy. To be fair, Gordy was not really being an ageist; Dorothy is supposed to be a six-year-old in the Frank L. Baum story…and critics would probably ravage the producers’ decision to cast a thirty-three-year-old Dorothy. But Ross was vehemently determined to get the part. She made a clandestine deal with Universal’s executive producer, Rob Cohen, that ultimately overrode Gordy’s protestations. Reluctantly, Gordy accepted Cohen’s stipulation.
In a show of good faith, Universal awarded Gordy an undefined production budget that was guaranteed to be very generous. They did so on the expectations of the studio for the project. Though both parties made out well in the deal, the film suffered because of it. The Wiz debuted as the most expensive musical ever made up to that point. It was also a gigantic flop, managing a net loss of $10.4 million on a $24 million budget and gaining notoriety for being one of the biggest Hollywood failures of the decade.
The collateral repercussions were undeservingly severe. The epic failure of The Wiz triggered a serious diminishing of Hollywood’s support for Black filmmakers and screen talent. It coincided with a decline in Motown’s success and the combined effect of these concurrences deterred Gordy from further pursuing a career in the industry. In short, Berry Gordy had one foot out the door, but certainly wasn't going to go down without throwing at least one more punch.
Berry Gordy’s [and Michael Schultz’s] The Last Dragon
By 1984, Michael Schultz and Berry Gordy were similarly disenchanted with the world of studio filmmaking. Schultz was in a creative slump. Having turned down an offer from music promoter, Robert Stigwood (producer of Jesus Christ Superstar , Tommy , and Saturday Night Live), to direct Grease (1978) because of scheduling, Schultz was rostered for Stigwood’s next planned motion picture – Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band (1978). Critical backlash from his Beatles bit was brutal (Variety: “…a totally bubblegum and cotton candy mélange of garish fantasy and narcissism”). Schultz, ever the optimist does not come off as being too phased. He remembers fondly that the film was very lucrative for him personally. But it did unquestionably mark the beginning of a downturn in his passion for movies as a whole.
Schultz was called in as a replacement director on his two subsequent films, Scavenger Hunt (1979) and Bustin’ Loose (1981). He had not been involved in the development of either property and, therefore, found it hard to invest much of himself into the projects. Compounding his disenchantment was the experience of collaborating with Pryor on Bustin’ Loose. The actor/comedian was near rock bottom when he began the film (including drug dependency and near-death self-immolation that would inspire the 1986 filmic autobiography Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling).
According to the director, suturing together the pre-tragedy material with Schultz’s reshoots was a nightmare task. During this period of creative malaise, he did procure one unique opportunity as director of the independent production, Carbon Copy, otherwise known for being Denzel Washington’s 1981 film debut. However, Schultz’s recent run of bad experiences are palpable throughout the film, diminishing its possibilities and resulting in a flawed final product. And who could blame him? He was one of the few remaining Black directors working on studio films.
Over the course of the next few years, Schultz’s fading enthusiasm led to a break from working on motion pictures. He redirected his efforts towards television, making Benny’s Place with Cicely Tyson and Lou Gossett Jr. for ABC in 1982 and, in 1983, For Us the Living: The Medgar Evers Story, which adapted the life of the assassinated Mississippi civil rights activist. While these two productions were ripe for renewing Schultz’s energy with their meaningful content and the presence of many talented collaborators, any progress made toward the revival of his creative and artistic ambitions hit a brick wall when he reluctantly agreed to direct The Jerk, Too (1984).
During the 1980s, Schultz had witnessed the film industry altogether abandon Black filmmakers and Black-themed films. Scholar Keith Corson, in his excellent and thoroughly researched book, Trying to Get Over, offers a study of Black filmmakers who were able to make commercial movies in the years between 1977 and 1986 (a manuscript that was, frankly, invaluable for the writing of this piece). Corson identifies eight black directors “who ventured to make commercial films for theatrical release during this time, trying to get over in Hollywood after the fall of blaxploitation.”
Schultz is one of those eight; the others being Sidney Poitier, Fred Williamson, Jamaa Fanaka, Gilbert Moses, Stan Lathan, Richard Pryor, and Prince. Half of those on the list were backed by their very significant star power. Just when things must have seemed about as bleak as they could possibly get, a script appeared on Schultz’s desk that instantly reignited his since-cooled filmmaking ambitions – The Last Dragon (1985).
Suzanne de Passe, a Motown executive, had befriended Schultz while working on Cooley High and Car Wash and sent him Louis Venosta’s homage to kung-fu and the Black action films of the 1970s. After finishing a read through, Schultz was glowing. He later claimed, “I knew immediately it was going to be successful when I read the script because in the history of cinema there have been very few Black heroes…kids would look at this movie over and over again.” He promptly phoned de Passe, telling her that he had to make this movie. De Passe pitched the proposal to her boss, Berry Gordy, and negotiations were soon underway.
By 1985, Berry Gordy had fallen far from his position as one of the most dominant forces in the media industry. The highly publicized failure of The Wiz had brought his filmmaking career to a screeching halt. His record label was reeling from a huge talent drain, having lost the likes of Michael Jackson and Diana Ross. And yet, he was able to convince a fledgling studio, TriStar Pictures, to finance The Last Dragon.
TriStar was the first new major studio since the founding of RKO in 1928. It was a three-way venture started in 1982 that pooled the assets of Columbia Pictures, CBS, and HBO. Many of TriStar’s early films banked on alternative distribution channels, such as VHS and television broadcast to recoup their upfront costs. Their first production was The Natural (1984), starring Robert Redford**. The studio experienced some noteworthy success early on with Places in the Heart (1984), a star-studded family drama that featured the likes of Sally Field, Ed Harris, Danny Glover, and John Malkovich. It netted the company seven Oscar nominations that year, winning for Best Actress (Sally Field) and Best Original Screenplay. On the flip side of that coin, TriStar was also experienced in handling controversy by the time they took a chance on The Last Dragon. Their now notorious Santa Claus slasher Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) was pulled from theaters two weeks after release, BUT it raked in almost three times its meager budget in the first week alone.
With financing secured, Schultz made his way to New York, a city that undoubtedly held fond memories for the beleaguered director. It was there, after all, that he directed the inspired To Be Young, Gifted and Black and garnered much notoriety for his theatrical achievements. The Last Dragon is, in many ways, a love-letter to that city (specifically Manhattan), adoringly casting quirky characters and charmingly showcasing dilapidated city streets and rundown warehouses. As Corson articulately observes, “Through the film’s New York setting, however, Schultz and Venosta problematize notions of fixed identity and suggest a cultural cross-pollination in its place. The film is teeming with characters that blur traditional designations of ethnicity and culture, creating a postmodern articulation of the melting pot.”
New York, as a production locale, did have its limitations, posing a unique set of challenges to Schultz and the film’s producers. Schultz recalls, “Making this film in New York was a fascinating project from a sociological point of view because New York unions were ten years behind Hollywood – not open to minorities and women.”
He later recounts that he vowed to return to New York and make a film with a predominately non-white crew. He made good on this promise almost immediately afterwards, with his prescient hip-hop-centric adaptation of the founding of Def-Jam Recordings, Krush Groove (1985). The Run-DMC vehicle featured an 80% minority crew, according to Schultz, including many of Spike Lee’s future collaborators (like cinematographer Ernest Dickerson who shot She’s Gotta Have It , Do the Right Thing, School Daze , and Malcolm X ).
There was also the issue of a very tight budget to contend with. Tristar was insistent that the film come in at a strict $10 million. Considering the technical aspirations, this required reigning in the script to the tune of a $2 million reduction. Schultz and Venosta spent a long night in a hotel room working towards this end. As Schultz was relatively new to using a computer for drafting screenplays, he accidentally deleted forty pages of material while Venosta dozed off. Probably not too funny at the time for Venosta, this ultimately worked favorably for the pair, providing the director with a more concise and TriStar-friendly draft.
One of the most daunting challenges in getting the script to screen was the casting of the picture. Schultz had a vision for a cartoon-ish ensemble that would embrace and echo the character types of the kung-fu movies and black action films from which he was drawing his inspiration. Taimak, the single-monikered lead who played Bruce Leroy Green, was a young martial artist who had won several major competitions in New York. According to the director, teaching Taimak to act was one of the hardest feats of making The Last Dragon, as the precocious nineteen-year-old had no prior experience.
Leroy’s nemesis-of-sorts, Sho’nuff (a/k/a The Shogun of Harlem) presented quite the opposite problem: Julius Carry is undeniably an infectious screen presence, but he knew nothing of martial arts. This deficiency was overcome with the help of several talented stuntman and fight choreographer/grandmaster, Ron Van Clief. Van Clief had already earned the nickname The Black Dragon, and starred in several films during the 1970s under that moniker.
For the role of the Leroy’s love interest, Schultz knew he needed a gorgeous black woman who could sing. Using the Motown connections readily available to him, Schultz quickly filled the role with the also-one-named actress/singer, Vanity. Vanity had been one of Prince’s recent discoveries, and he was helping her on a path to stardom.
With the main roles filled, Schultz next turned his attention to finding crew members equipped with the talents to help fulfill his vision. Central to the project was the handling of the dance numbers and musical scenes. Berry Gordy proved to be, well, something of an asset in this regard. With Gordy producing, rights were given at no cost to the production. This freed up money for licensing the (expensive) rights of the Bruce Lee footage that is used to great effect in the film.
The soundtrack, although backed by some phenomenal talents including Willie Hutch (in his return to Motown), Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, and Smokey Robinson, is pretty cheesy and ultimately lackluster. The title theme, “The Last Dragon,” was nominated for the Worst Original Song at the 1985 Golden Raspberry Awards, as was Vanity’s “7th Heaven” (Interesting sidenote: “All You Can Eat” from Schultz’s other 1985 film, Krush Groove was also a contender, but the award went to “Peace in Our Life” from Rambo: First Blood Part II ).
Schultz, borrowing from recent developments in concert performances, resolved to have major set pieces shot in front of a thirty-foot screen that would play live alongside onstage action. For choreography, Schultz recruited a well-respected Broadway talent in Lester Wilson. Prominently featured in The Last Dragon is the embedded music video for DeBarge’s debut of “Rhythm of the Night”, which serves as the backdrop to a Soul-Train inspired dance party. This and other dual screen performances made use of new, custom video technology, which accounted for roughly 10% of the final budget. Video consultant Charles Anzalone explained, “We used three professional Sony Betacam players, the only three of their kind in the world, especially developed for this movie. We had to modify the transmission of the video in order to accommodate the filming of the video sections in the film, all that work with Vanity in the Seventh Heaven sequences. This took months of intensive research and development. It’s very sophisticated.”
All told, they look pretty great for the time in which they were made. Purportedly Diana Ross stopped by the set and inquired as to whether she could purchase it for her next music tour.
The film’s urban realism, an auteur signature evident in much of Schultz’s work, was lensed by Lester Contner who, according to Schultz, had worked with Woody Allen on occasion (he appears in IMDB most notably as an assistant camera operator on Jaws  and The Wiz). Despite this being a big break for Contner as a DP, he moved on to directing thereafter. The production design was dictated, in part, by the budget, but it fit perfectly for what Schultz had in mind – “that cartoon quality we were going after.” This effort was led by another Broadway talent, Peter Larkin (Tootsie ). The “cartoon quality” is most evident in the film’s final showdown, when both Leroy and Sho’Nuff exude a rotoscoped glow that is certainly dated but undeniably endearing.
The final challenge for Schultz came during the editing process. Throughout the film’s director’s commentary track, Schultz is humble, gracious, and modest. He doles out credit and praise to all those involved and takes very little for himself. He does betray a slight hint of discomfort when discussing any of the film’s perceived shortcomings. Only once does he touch on the control issues of Berry Gordy, who had had De Passe removed from the set in order to assume more control and credit as producer for himself. Schultz remembers, “The editing process was a bit contentious. I had one vision and Berry Gordy had another.” He goes on to explain that he felt more culturally appropriate music be scored in certain areas to help with the rhythm of the film. Meanwhile, Gordy refused and emphatically pushed the Motown pieces.
The Last Dragon became an instant financial success and endures as a Black cultural touchstone. Characters, dialogue, and music from the film have frequently been culturally referenced and recycled (see: Busta Rhymes, Boots Riley, WWE champion Naomi, Wu Tang/RZA, and Daddy Green’s Pizza in Bed-Stuy). It “remains the film [Schultz] speaks about with the greatest sense of pride” (Corson), grossing $33 million at the box office which, by any metric relative to its budget, constituted a success. It quickly gained a cult following when TriStar successfully deployed its alternative distribution channels.
Schultz realized his vision, shared with the screenwriter and cast, of providing a positive Black role model that children could look up to. Schultz regularly encounters fans that enthusiastically ask him when the sequels are getting made. His prediction that the Black youth would flock to cinemas for repeat viewings of the film proved to be prescient: “What we found instantly was that it appealed immediately to a young audience – that demographic that people kill for today.”
Disregarding negative critical takes, Schultz offers another insightful reflection on the film’s reception during that same moment of reminiscence on the commentary track: “For some reason, we didn’t get that kind of press though there was very little press on this picture in terms of its success for audiences and I can’t tell you why that is.”
This writer would venture to guess that Schultz has some idea what that was. His past films, and the films of his Black peers in the industry, especially post-Blaxploitation, often went ignored because the studios no longer needed to market films to Black audiences. Tentpole blockbusters were the new trend in Hollywood, and they made more than enough to fill the pockets of the predominately white, often nepotistic film bigwigs. If Schultz harbors any resentment towards a film canon that has consistently overlooked his brilliance and achievements, he shows no signs of bitterness. His movies reached and touched the audiences he made them for.
In the end, it is hard to overlook a compelling similarity between Bruce Leroy and Michael Schultz: they both embody a unique charisma, charm, innocence, and creative talent that is routinely deployed in the hope that it can inspire dreamers. Schultz is the epitome of a creative talent, often critically misunderstood and underwritten, who has forced open the lock tight doors of an exclusive industry to those who draw upon his example. He is an inspiration to those on a mission to change the world with their “glow”. He continues working toward this end today, having recently directed episodes of Black Lightning and All American.
Channeling the Shogun of Harlem, I’ll simply end with this: to anyone who dares to question or doubt the genius of such a MASTER as Michael Schultz, you can kiss my Converse.
*The rosters of these two organizations include the likes of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Ossie Davis, Alice Childresss, Moses Gunn, Esther Rolle, Clarice Taylor, Rosalind Cash and William Greaves.
**TriStar handled the distribution of ITC Entertainment’s Where the Boys Are ’84, a commercial failure that was still technically their first release.
Mike O'Brien is an academic who has focused his efforts on the reclamation of Black cinema for years, and has written for numerous publications.