When Michael Schultz began work on his first film, in 1971, there was no road map for a lengthy career as a Black director in Hollywood. The first two studio movies to employ Black directors — Gordon Parks’s “The Learning Tree” (1969) and Ossie Davis’s “Cotton Comes to Harlem” (1970) — had only relatively recently left theaters. And the movement that would soon be known as Blaxploitation — mimicking the work of Davis, Parks and the trailblazing independent filmmaker Melvin Van Peebles — did little to suggest a promising future.
Schultz was 32 at the time and a rising star of the New York theater scene. He had been tapped to direct a public television documentary, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” adapted from the book about Lorraine Hansberry. Though he didn’t know it, Schultz had already begun an improbable course that would take him to the heart of the mainstream film and television industry, where he has essentially remained for the past five decades.
Although he has cast a more modest shadow than some of his peers, Schultz holds a singular résumé. He has directed more than a dozen films, including the classics “Cooley High” (1975), “Car Wash” (1976) and “Krush Groove” (1985); is responsible for the first feature-film appearances of Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Blair Underwood; and has worked consistently in television since the 1990s.