November 20, 2020
Keenan Ivory Wayans
1 Hr., 21 Mins.
ollywood Shuffle (1987), co-written, directed by, and starring Robert Townsend, is a semi-autobiographical product of frustration. For years, Townsend, a struggling Black actor, endured frustrating and unsuccessful auditions in spades; it wasn’t uncommon to be told that he wasn’t “Black enough” for a role. When Townsend did get parts, they were often ones he wasn't proud of taking — he regularly had
to embody racist caricatures written by white creators. Frustrated by how he and other Black actors were constantly treated in the entertainment industry, Townsend made Hollywood Shuffle — in which he plays a fledgling actor not unlike himself, and satirizes what Black actors routinely go through as they try
to make it — mostly on a wing and a prayer, in part to give himself a vehicle. Although some of its jokes are outmoded, Hollywood Shuffle is a sharp and funny critique of a movie.
Outwardly Hollywood Shuffle is the story of Bobby Taylor (Townsend), a 20-something who dreams of becoming an actor but, for now, is mostly trekking to unsuccessful auditions when not taking shifts at his hot-dog-stand day job. The film chronicles the inane requests he hears from white casting agents — could you be blacker?; could you give us Eddie Murphy? — and the inner tug of war he feels when pining for a part that he knows is fundamentally harmful by way of representation. (The latest part he’s trying out for is in a movie called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge; he’s going to have to speak Mickey Mouse-pitched “jive” in a way that appeases the film’s white filmmakers.) The movie shrewdly captures a dilemma always on Taylor's (and obviously Townsend’s) mind. Because the bulk of available roles in Hollywood for Black people are steeped in stereotype, what kind of toll will it take on him, as well as on the audiences who watch his work, if he swallows his pride and says yes to movies and TV shows that belittle Black people because he wants so badly to work? Good roles for Black actors inarguably do exist, but the numbers, before and when Hollywood Shuffle was made and still today, are still scanty compared to what white actors, who cannot say that much of what is available for them to audition for is stereotype-soused, have around to pick and choose from.
Most of the movie is not taken up by scenes directly showing Bobby’s reality but rather by skits that function, almost, as video essays. In one of them, Bobby is a British actor in an infomercial, selling a “Black acting” course (one of its perks is teaching you how to speak jive the way a white director might want you to; another lesson helps you learn how to “walk Black”). In another, he and one of his friends transform into movie critics with their own TV show à la At the Movies (1986-2010), on which they comment on the unbelievability of white-washed films strongly resembling entries in the Indiana Jones and Dirty Harry
franchises. Pointedly, they both like the only movie in the lineup prominently featuring Black people but are wary of the stereotypes it nonetheless proffers; the takeaway is that, weekend after weekend, this might be the most Black representation available. The majority of the skits in Hollywood Shuffle are cutting and well-realized, though one of them, a sendup of film noir, is out of place and too long; it’s one of the few things in the feature that might have been better off on the cutting-room floor. That and the multiple instances of homophobia; this is ironic, given that this is a movie fundamentally critiquing how those put in the movie industry's margins are portrayed.
Hollywood Shuffle establishes Townsend not only as an astute critic but a limber comedy performer in the improv tradition. He oscillates between types in these skits so easily that the film, in addition to boasting his capabilities as a multi-hyphenate, makes a case for his relative genius as a comedian. The feature, which helped jumpstart Townsend’s career (it was a critical and commercial success upon release), is an uncommon testament of a frustrated artist managing to turn their exasperation into victory. But the movie’s ending itself offers a reality starkly different from Townsend's own — an alternative vision of where Townsend might have ended up if he had simply given up. It’s poignant, knowing that where the film finishes is undoubtedly typical whereas a movie like this existing in the first place is the rarer thing. A-