On the Quiet Radical Black Politics of the 1976 Film Car Wash
Deesha Philyaw in Conversation with Mychal Denzel Smith on the Open Form Podcast
Welcome to Open Form, a weekly film podcast hosted by award-winning writer Mychal Denzel Smith. Each week, a different author chooses a movie: a movie they love, a movie they hate, a movie they hate to love. Something nostalgic from their childhood. A brand-new obsession. Something they’ve been dying to talk about for ages and their friends are constantly annoyed by them bringing it up.
In this episode of Open Form, Mychal talks to Deesha Philyaw (The Secret Lives of Church Ladies) about the 1976 film Car Wash, directed by Michael Schultz and starring Franklyn Ajaye, Bill Duke, George Carlin, The Pointer Sisters, and Richard Pryor.
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From the episode:
Deesha Philyaw: There’s one moment where Bill Duke’s character, Abdullah, uses a slur against Lindy. Lindy gets the last word and says… I’m more me and more man than you’ll ever be and more woman than you ever have. … The filmmaker didn’t want to give the impression that Lindy had it easy either. That would have been, I think, a grave mistake. But then he used Abdullah’s character to show that hostility. But that was not the general feeling and sentiment of Lindy’s coworkers.
Everybody cared about everybody else, you know? And when I think about why I like this film, despite its shortcomings, I think there’s that aspect of it too. But they didn’t do it in this way that’s like, we’re color blind. Race doesn’t matter. It did it in a way that just felt very natural and very organic, which is these are people who work together every day, who have each other’s back, who have formed what we would consider a family in many respects across their differences. But at the same time, nobody has to pretend to be colorless or genderless or whatever that they make it work.
Mychal Denzel Smith: I think that for me, that moment between Abdullah and Lindy is reflective of what we would now call hoteps, that strain of black radical politics that has always sort of existed. And it’s a comeuppance for that part of it, which is revolutionary, right? He changed his name, Abdullah Muhammed Akhbar. He comes to work late and he’s just like, I don’t need this slave job and all of this other stuff. And it’s focused on the idea of revolution as being something about the black man and they see Lindy as a betrayal of that.
There’s so many more examples of that that come up … like all the black feminist literature of the time that’s dealing with what makes me think of now like a Dave Chappelle, right? You just can’t see beyond the idea that the primary focus of black liberation is the black man and then the ability of the black man to do whatever. But it’s so rich in that Lindy gets the last word there. Lindy verbally spits in Abdullah’s face to say, you don’t even know what it is that you want that will set you free. And I also am assured of myself.
Deesha Philyaw‘s writing on race, parenting, gender, and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, McSweeney’s, the Rumpus, Brevity, TueNight, and elsewhere. Originally from Jacksonville, Florida, she currently lives in Pittsburgh with her daughters.