Friday, May 3, 2019

Classic Movie Review: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
Directed by: Robert Townsend.
Written by: Dom Irrera and Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans.
Starring: Robert Townsend (Bobby Taylor / Jasper / Speed / Sam Ace / Rambro), Craigus R. Johnson (Stevie Taylor), Helen Martin (Bobby's Grandmother), Starletta DuPois (Bobby's Mother), David McKnight (Uncle Ray), Keenen Ivory Wayans (Donald / Jheri Curl), Lou B. Washington (Tiny), Anne-Marie Johnson (Lydia / Willie Mae / Hooker #5), Don Reed (Maurice), Sena Ayn Black (Receptionist / Missy Ann / Woman on Cliff), Lisa Mende (Casting Director), Dom Irrera (Writer), Eugene Robert Glazer (Director / Teacher / Amadeus / Chicago Jones / Dirty Larry), John Witherspoon (Mr. Jones), Le Tari  (Rudy), Paul Mooney (President of NAACP).
Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle caused quite a stir when it was released in 1987. Coming out the year after Spike Lee’s breakthrough film, She’s Gotta Have It, this appeared like another film by an ambitious, talented young black director who decided to do things his own way to get his film made. The story about how he made the film are well-known – he begged those he knew for all the film they could get, got friends to work on the film for next to nothing, etc. And it worked. Hollywood Shuffle looks like a studio comedy from the 1980s, even if it was made for under $100,000. It was supposed to be Townsend’s calling card – his way of truly breaking into the industry he had struggled to do in more than a decade of trying to be a working actor, getting small parts only. All these years later, Hollywood Shuffle is still the film that Townsend is best known for. He has worked fairly steadily – as a writer, director and actor. But his career in feature films lasted just a decade or so – with Hollywood Shuffle followed by The Five Heartbeets, Meteor Man and BAPS, and almost legendarily bad movie – which pretty much killed it. It is still a triumph that Townsend got Hollywood Shuffle made at all in 1987 – and sadly, the film is still more than a little accurate. It’s still sad though that for whatever reason, he was never really able to follow it up with something that really realized the potential so clearly in display in this film.
In the film, Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, just one of many working black actors in Hollywood – or at least trying to work. He works at a hotdog stand to make ends meet, and lives with his parents, his grandmother a little brother, and is always heading out for one audition after another, and never getting them. The main thrust of the movie is a series of auditions he has to go through to get his first lead role – a huge opportunity for him. Yes, the role is a stereotypical gang member, and a white person’s version of that to boot – and bears no resemblance to any of the black people Bobby knows. But if he gets the role, it will surely lead to others, right?
That’s the plot of the movie, sure, but Townsend and company really use it as a jumping off point to explore the way that Hollywood sees black actors, black people. The film shows us any number of stereotypical roles for black people – gang members, slaves, etc. It also shows us Bobby imagining himself in roles that a black actor would never get – a film noir detective like Sam Spade, an action hero named Rambro. He imagines what may happen if he makes the movie he knows is offensive to black people – and what may happen if the NAACP decides to boycott – not the film itself, but him personally. My favorite segment is probably an extended riff on Siskel & Ebert, where two black men review recent movies that they managed to sneak into.
The film is far from perfect. While it has the look of a studio comedy from 1987, it is rough around the edges – some of the performances don’t quite work, some of the segments go on far too long, and even at just over 80 minutes, it feels padded to get there. And yet, its hard to not to admire the film for its balls to the walls approach – how it throws one punch after another at Hollywood. And it’s hard not to see its influence on others. One of the co-writers and co-stars of the movie was Keenan Ivory Wayans – who the next year would make his directorial debut I’m Gonna Git You Sucka – a spoof of Blaxploitation films, and just two years after that would create In Living Color. There is more than a little of Hollywood Shuffle in those projects. So the legacy of Hollywood Shuffle continues – even if, for whatever reason, Robert Townsend was never quite able to replicate its success.

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