Monday, February 15, 2016

Acting Black Blogathon – Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

As you can tell from the banner above this review is part of the Acting Black Blogathon.  When I saw Dell’s explanation of this the very first film that popped into my head was Hollywood Shuffle – Robert Townsend’s biting satire of what it’s like to be a black actor in Hollywood.  And even though it was done almost 30 years ago, things have only marginally improved since then.

The movie’s framework is that a young black man named Bobby Taylor who is an aspiring actor.  We see him go for an audition, a callback, and then during filming.  Interspersed among these base scenes are ones where Townsend’s character daydreams about all the roles he’d like to play, or has bad dreams about the roles he’s afraid he might be forced to do.

Townsend produced, directed, starred in, and co-wrote the movie (with Keenan Ivory Wayans – his first film writing).  Most of the cast plays multiple roles – one in the “real world” of the film and then ones in Bobby’s imagination.

Townsend was at the forefront of people making movies themselves by getting financing any way they could – most often by maxing out credit cards.  He spent two years shooting this one because he had to take time off to act in other movies or to do stand up comedy to earn money to buy more film stock.  Does this sound familiar?  Kevin Smith financed Clerks (1994) by maxing out credit cards and selling his comic book collection.

Between them was Robert Rodriguez making El Mariachi (1988) for a mere $7,000.  And just before them was Spike Lee with his first film She’s Gotta Have it (1986).  Lee, Rodriguez, and Smith all went on to do many more well known movies.  For reasons that escape me Townsend did not do anywhere near as well.  Oh, he continued acting through the 1990s and has mostly been producing in the 2000s, but he’s nowhere near the household name that the other three are.  And that extends to this, his first film.  And it’s a little sad that both he and this film are not better known.

In Hollywood Shuffle we see Bobby go for a part in a movie titled Jivetown Jimmy’s Revenge.  He’s reading from a script with lines such as “I ain’t be got no weapon” and “I’s gonna turn my back.”  At the casting we see a whole room of black men and women running lines, trying to be the worst stereotype you can be because they all are willing to do anything to get parts in movies.  During one audition we see the producer, director, and writer (all white) asking one of them if they can “act more black” for them.  Their entire knowledge of how they think black people act in real life has been garnered from TV shows and other films like theirs.

Hollywood Shuffle would be only a one joke movie if all it showed was “white people are keeping blacks down”.  It goes far beyond that.  We see that a (presumably) Puerto Rican gang in the same film is expected to play up to similar bad stereotypes – “Did ju hear what I’m sayin?’”  We also see another actor up for the same part as Bobby telling him the entire script is bullshit, how it’s all a way to keep blacks down…then he happily goes in to audition for it anyway.  Later, we see he got a minor role while Bobby got the lead and he tries to mess with Bobby again.  He’s the first one in line to take advantage of an open role is this offensive movie, though.

In a couple sequences we also see black characters not only tolerating a bad TV show and a bad movie – both of which play into the same stereotypes – but they even love them.  These scenes are taking shots at the actors who go along with the bad stereotyping and the audiences who pay money to see negative depictions of their own race.

It’s not just about stereotypes, though.  We see satire and commentary on the whole process of moviemaking in general.  Bobby keeps lying to his boss to go to auditions. The filmmakers sometimes ignore the people auditioning.  The writer is clueless.  The producer is way too full of herself.  There are always people waiting in the wings to take your place.  And we see how Bobby has people in his life that support him (his family) and the ones that are trying to tear him down because he’s trying to follow his dream (his co-workers at a hot dog stand).

There is a lot of humor in the film, although a sizable chunk of it is wincing humor because it’s almost too honest.  By far the best parts of the movie are the daydream sequences.  And the best one of them is Black Acting School.

We see a standard scene from an escaped slave movie.  We get short bits from each of the archetypes – strong black woman, weak willed man, Mandingo (literally) character, and Townsend does almost a dead on impersonation of Stepin Fetchit – acting slow witted with a whiny voice.  Right as he finishes a line we suddenly hear “cut” and suddenly he’s no longer Stepin Fetchit but is speaking in a cultured British accent.  He has just demonstrated what his Black Acting School can do for other black performers like him.  He shows instructors (all white) teaching black performers how to be jive and how to “walk black”.  He interviews one graduate who proudly cites that since going there he’s played “9 crooks, 4 gang leaders, 2 dope dealers and a rapist twice.”  The owner of the school cautions that it’s for “dark skinned blacks only”, though, because “light skinned and yellow blacks don’t make good criminals”.  Ouch.

Another nightmarish dream Bobby has is being told the movie makers are looking for “an Eddie Murphy type” and suddenly he can’t control the Murphy laugh from coming out of him and he changes who he is in order to make the filmmakers happy.

There are several positive dreams, though.  We see Bobby imagining himself as a 40s noir P.I., playing Shakespeare (King Lear), playing a superhero, playing a big action star, winning the Oscar, and imagining himself as one half of a “street” Siskel and Ebert where the only movie both of them like is one about killer black zombie pimps.

In the decade after this movie came out we saw Wesley Snipes become a popular action star (Passenger 57, Blade), Denzel Washington do Shakespeare (Much Ado About Nothing), Washington again playing a 40s private eye (Devil in a Blue Dress), and Townsend wrote himself another movie where he played a superhero (Meteor Man).  And when Hollywood Shuffle was made the sum total of black performers who had won acting Oscars was three, count ‘em three, over 58 years – Hattie McDaniel in 1940, Sidney Poitier in 1964, and Louis Gossett, Jr. in 1984.  Since this film came out there have been 12 more winners – most of them only once we got into the 2000s, though.

Hollywood Shuffle is simultaneously a skewering of the then current situation for black actors in Hollywood, and prescient about the future for them – both good and bad.  It is definitely a film that deserves far better than to be mostly forgotten like it is today.  And the same can be said about Robert Townsend.  I definitely recommend this film to you.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Here is the Black Acting School bit, with it's framing scenes (bad language included):


  1. Hollywood Shuffle is one of the sharpest satires I've ever seen. You give all the reasons why. I've heard some of the stories about the filming of this and they are wild since Townsend couldn't afford to get a filming permit. And his performance is great. I actually own this on DVD. Think I'm going to watch it again. Thanks a bunch for this entry!

    1. You're welcome.

      I was running long on the post so I left out some things, but yes, Townsend reportedly had his cast and crew wear UCLA jerseys because they didn't have money for filming permits in L.A. so they pretended to be doing a student film.

      Have fun watching it again. I did. Doing this review gave me an excuse to watch my own DVD of it. I wish it had more on it for extras than just the trailer.