Shot on a shoe-string budget over an intermittent two year period, 1987’s Hollywood Shuffle was one of the forerunners of the new kind of low-budget independent filmmaking that would blow up in the early ’90s, led by New Line Studios, Quentin Tarantino, and Steven Soderbergh.
This was director/producer Robert Townsend’s first foray behind the camera after establishing himself as an actor in films such as A Soldier’s Story and Ratboy. Despite his success, Townsend found himself staring down the barrel of a problem faced by so many African-American actors: an industry that wants to relegate all black actors and actresses to roles as pimps, prostitutes, slaves, thugs, and “Eddie Murphy-types.”
His response was this genial satire, based on his own experiences, and partially funded by maxing out his credit cards and using free left-over film stock from earlier films he had worked on. Because of the financial limitations, Townsend would periodically have to stop filming to go out on the road with his stand-up career, earning the money needed to resume filming.
Hollywood Shuffle tells the story of struggling actor Bobby Taylor (Townsend), a likable soul searching for that big breakout role while doing time gigging at a hot-dog stand run by Mr. Jones (John Witherspoon). His uncle (David McKnight) was a singer who gave up on his own career, now working as a barber and giving Bobby heartfelt advice not to give up on his acting dream. His grandmother (Helen Martin) loves him, but wants him to work someplace steady and legitimate like the post office, where he doesn’t have to be a part of negative images of the black community. His young brother Stevie idolizes him. Told at auditions that he’s “not black enough”, a lead role in a film finally comes his way, but it’s a clichéd gang leader part, and he is torn between his ambition, the feelings of his family, and his own self-respect as a black man.
Along the way, Townsend digresses into a series of pointed sketches and fantasy sequences satirizing Hollywood’s treatment of black actors and depiction of black characters. We visit the Black Acting School, where you learn to talk jive and pimp walk, watch a noir mystery take-off investigating the death of a breakdancer, and witness Taylor’s imagined comeuppance for his stifling, witless co-workers (Keenen Ivory Wayans and Lou Washington).
Townsend makes for a sympathetic lead, unassuming and unpretentious. Witherspoon has a nice line on the blustery hot dog stand owner, whose dream is limited to finding the perfect foodstuff to sell to “hos”. Wayans has a bouncy, pop-eyed charm as the villain in the faux-noir, a dancer with an addiction to hair-care products. There’s a gentle style in the family scenes, and veteran Helen Martin effortlessly steals every scene she’s in.
But not all of Townsend’s movie works. The script, co-written with Wayans, shortchanges the supporting characters in favor of the fantasy sequences, and despite the compact running time (78 minutes), some scenes drag on longer than the humor can support. Fans of Wayans’ later sketch comedy In Living Colour will recognize some of the comedic beats and style here, and will be familiar with the scattershot approach. The difficult circumstances of the filming are also apparent in the uneven quality of some of the acting; after all, if you have only a limited amount of actual film to work with, how many takes can you afford to improve performance?
But it’s also hard not to appreciate the genuine feeling behind Townsend’s satirical jabs, even if the hard hand of time and changing comedic tastes have made some of those jabs land with a dull thud. Many would say the situation for black actors and directors has not changed much since then: How many black film superheroes can you name? What have you seen Monique in since she won an Oscar? Tell me again why Selma didn’t get a best director nomination?
This first Blu-ray release for Hollywood Shuffle, from Olive Films, is a bare-bones affair, with zero extras, not even a theatrical trailer. The disc looks good, though and covers some of the low-budget technical seams without trouble.
Despite its varying artistic quality, Hollywood Shuffle brought some much-needed attention to a predicament that is still with us, if perhaps in a different form. Kudos to Townsend and his filmmaking team for that.