It's always fun when a new director comes on to the scene and has something familiar yet original and fresh to say in a way that has not really been done before, and not only gets people talking but also thinking. Jean-Luc Godard birthed the French New Wave movement in 1959 with his existential take on Hollywood B-movies with A Bout De Souffle (Breathless). Francois Truffaut continued with the first of his Antoine Doinel saga The 400 Blows. Dennis Hopper did it in 1969 with the culturally reflective and controversial Easy Rider. David Lynch and his bizarre Eraserhead in 1976, Spike Lee in 1986 with a funny take on modern sexcapades with She’s Gotta Have It, the list goes on. One that is unfairly forgotten and underappreciated is Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle though. A film that, similar to previous Lost and Found case Putney Swope, looks at racial stereotypes in film with a satirical eye.
Film: Hollywood Shuffle
Cast: Robert Townsend, Anne-Marie Johnson, Helen Martin, Jimmy Woodard and Dom Irrera
Director: Robert Townsend
Writers: Robert Townsend, Keenen Ivory Wayans and Dom Irrera
Although it was well received and had a substantial box-office at the time, it has since disappeared from most conversations about trail blazing comedies yet imitated by films that, for the most part, pale in comparison today. In 1986 Robert Townsend was trying to break Hollywood and landed roles in some projects. However these were mainly bit parts such in under the radar films such as Ratboy, Odd Jobs, Streets of Fire and A Soldier’s Story. He started to realise that while some were credible most of the roles offered to black actors were restricted to gang members and hoodlums. He decided it was time for change, a real change but with a twist. Seeing how it was easy to label anybody angry and frustrated that had anything negative to say about the industry, Townsend decided to make a comedic take on the whole situation. Knowing he would never receive backing for such a risky project he managed to borrow money from friends, put money on personal credit cards and use stock footage from other films he starred in order to come up with the film’s low-budget. Many infamous stories have circulated about the lengths Townsend went to so the film could be finished. One of them being that during the course of shooting the filmmakers pretended to be students on a film course by wearing UCLA t-shirts as the project had no permits. Another is it took twelve days to shoot over the course of two years as production would regularly run out of funds and Townsend found new ways to continue filming. Luckily it was all worth it.
Bobby Taylor has dreams of being a Hollywood superstar, even though some of his family and friends at Winky Dinky Dog, his part-time fast food job, think otherwise. His younger brother Stevie (Craigus R. Johnson) and girlfriend Lydia (Anne-Marie Johnson) believe in him and Bobby finally lands a role in a film…but as a leader of a street gang. Bobby starts to have doubts about what it is he is wishing for and that becoming a huge film star may mean playing characters that reinforce negative portrayls of African-Americans. Through a series of sketches and vignettes we witness Bobby fight between his dreams and his morals. Can he achieve both?
From the very beginning Hollywood Shuffle pulls no punches. It opens with neon bright credits as we hear the voice of Bobby Taylor talking in a stereotypically ghetto, Ebonics driven manner, ‘Tommy TOMMY you killed’ed my brother. He was my only brother. I loved’ed this dude baby…and you gonna pay jive sucker’. We then pan to him saying these lines in the mirror with his little brother Stevie, who obviously looks up to his ambitious brother very much. He suddenly stops and asks his little brother in his natural well spoken voice what his next line is. It’s a great reveal and plays on what types of characters the audience are used to seeing African-Americans portray in films. Townsend is not just set on making the viewer uncomfortable, although that may help get his point across, but he also wants them to think. At the core of the film it is ultimately about an actor that wants to make it big in Hollywood, very much like Townsend himself at the time. However, Townsend uses this basic storyline to explore many other things that he thinks are important.
We see him go to auditions where most of the white casting agents tell black actors that they are ‘not black enough’ or looking more for an Eddie Murphy type (Townsend directed and co-star/writer Ivory Wayans co-wrote Murphy’s second stand-up effort Raw that same year in 1987). When these incidents occur we usually enter Taylor’s mind as he wonders what could be with hilarious with truthful results. In one of the standout sketches Taylor imagines an advertisement for Black Acting School made up of mainly white acting coaches teaching young black actors how to act more black by walking and talking in a certain way. It’s funny, sincere and most importantly hits close to home. Townsend doesn’t just blame the plight of limited roles for black actors on Hollywood. He also discusses the actors that accept these roles, not thinking about the damaging effect it can have in the media. In another standout scene where Taylor is debating whether or not he should go through with the troubling street gang role, he imagines public figures picketing outside his house protesting against his rise in Hollywood due to the fact he only plays characters that are considered racially offensive. His family, friends and even news reporters decide that the only way to stop him being a ‘sell-out’ is to kill him.
Hollywood Shuffle stands up very well to today’s standards and deals with issues that are still considered forbidden in Hollywood. It is evident that this is an impressive directorial debut as Townsend handles the material very well and maintains a set of confident approaches to filming the comedy sketches, while upholding the more dramatic scenes in a veteran like fashion.