The Black Man Scrubs, the White Man Cleans Up
BELIEVE IT OR not, the 1976 comedy-drama Car Wash did more than inspire Rose Royce's title tune, a Top 10 disco ditty that wedged some sobering career guidance in between its grooves: "You might not ever get rich/But lemme tell ya it's better than diggin' a ditch." Released only weeks before Jimmy Carter was elected on his promises to shift tax burdens away from the working class, Car Wash (screening in Stevens Square Park as part of Red Eye Cinema's work-themed movies-and-music series) marks the point at which defiant blaxploitation turned decisively into upbeat crossover entertainment. Even Variety's dubiously worded rave recognized this whistle-while-you-work portrait of the predominantly black employees at a white-owned and -patronized business as a symbolic sudser: "Car Wash uses gritty humor to polish clean the souls of a lot of likeable street people." Small wonder author Darius James's connoisseur survey That's Blaxploitation! dispenses with the film's popularity in a single sentence: "Apparently, a lot of you thought earning $4.25 an hour was really funny."
Pivoting on the debate between a hard-working, ex-con family man (Ivan Dixon) and a flailing black nationalist (Bill Duke), Car Wash takes the notion of working for The Man as a given and resolves to make the best of it. "We'll work it out together," Dixon's character assures Duke's while counting the boss's money. The casting of Dixon, who had directed the revolutionary Spook Who Sat by the Door just three years earlier, was no less suggestive of the culture's turning tide than Richard Pryor's cartoonish cameo as Daddy Rich, reverend of The Church of Divine Economic Spirituality. Indeed, the pro-capitalist Car Wash preached the virtues of joining the system in more ways than one. Working from a script by the upwardly mobile Joel Schumacher (who'd go on to "deal" with urban race issues as the instigator of Falling Down), black director Michael Schultz graduated from the indie Cooley High to a gig at Universal Pictures, whose two-million-dollar investment he helped to multiply sixfold.
Humor is at once central to the film and the least innovative of its qualities. Writing in 1993, film historian Richard Dyer astutely posited Car Wash as a musical, although the distinction he draws between it and Vincente Minnelli's plantation-set Cabin in the Sky (1943) seems to blur when the employees start working their steam guns and vacuum hoses in perfect rhythm to the title track. While Car Wash won the Best Music award at Cannes in the year that Pauline Kael served on the jury, her earlier review deemed it "the movie equivalent of junk food... It has no more class that a Hostess Twinkie, and it, too, may make you gag a little."
Speaking of regurgitation, was it Schumacher or Schultz who came up with the idea of having a bratty white kid (Ricky Fellen) puke on a Beverly Hills mom played by Lorraine Gary, wife of Universal chief Sid Sheinberg? Regardless, the scene worked and then some: The Minneapolis Tribune's critic Will Jones reported that the upchuck gag provoked "stomping and cheering" at a weekend matinee at the Skyway Theater. No doubt the one who got stuck cleaning up that mess also whistled while he worked.
Car Wash screens Wednesday, June 30 at dusk as part of Red Eye Cinema's movies-and-music series in Stevens Square Park.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.