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Stream of the Day: ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ Raised Issues Facing Black Actors That Still Exist 30 Years Later

Robert Townsend's 1987 feature debut remains an essential piece of black Hollywood history.

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Conquering Unicorn/Sam Goldwyn/Kobal/Shutterstock (5874883b)Robert Townsend, Helen MartinHollywood Shuffle - 1987Director: Robert TownsendConquering Unicorn/Sam GoldwynUSAScene StillComedy

Robert Townsend and Helen Martin in “Hollywood Shuffle”

Conquering Unicorn/Sam Goldwyn/Kobal/Shutterstock

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Decades before Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” squashed box-office expectations en route to a Best Original Screenplay Oscar, Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans struck a similar chord in 1987 with “Hollywood Shuffle,” a biting satire about the dearth of roles for black actors in Hollywood. Unlike “Get Out,” the approach to racial comedy in “Shuffle” is much more flagrant. However, it remains an essential piece of black Hollywood history that still has something to say about the industry today.

The loosely autobiographical film follows aspiring actor and hot-dog stand worker Bobby Taylor (Townsend), who catches the wrath of his grandmother (Helen Martin) when he auditions for a role in the regrettably-titled exploitation film “Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge.” When Tinseltown Studios casts Taylor in the title role, he has a series of conflicted dreams satirizing African-American stereotypes in Hollywood, and must reconcile his career goals with his desire to remain a positive role model for his younger brother (Craigus R. Johnson).

Townsend decided he wanted to say something about the plight of black actors in Hollywood, and to do it the only way he knew how: with jokes. The result was a riotous protest film that charts his tribulations as he tries to get work in the film industry.

Townsend designed the film as a series of humorous vignettes. He depicts classically trained black actors auditioning for roles with stereotypical lines like, “I ain’t be got no weapon.” His targets include movie review programs, as he envisions himself as co-host of a show called “Sneakin’ in the Movies” on which two black men debate the merits of then-current cinema. The sequence exposes how film critics, like filmmakers, can be blind to racism in cinema. In fact, Townsend’s assault on racism in showbiz is what primarily keeps “Shuffle” humming along and gives the film its considerable distinction.

When a fairer-skinned black actor reveals that he started darkening his skin in order to find work, the gag has bite. And in a sequence about a hit TV show called “There’s a Bat in My House,” about a character who is “half-bat, half-soul brother,” Townsend is mocking the silliness in how black TV characters were often portrayed.

But maybe the most famous scene from the film is a sequence called “Black Acting School” in which Townsend’s version of himself, imagines white actors instructing black actors on how to perfect roles as pimps, hookers, butlers, and gangsters. At the film’s climax, Bobby walks off an exploitation film in disgust, refusing to continue on with his Stepin Fetchit role.

The comedy is often outrageous, and almost always spot on, but only rarely does the frenetic energy of Townsend and his ensemble fail to make up for low production values and crude taste. One particular blunder is Townsend’s characterization of gay men as flamboyant hair stylists, a slip that seems particularly ill-suited for a film critical of stereotypes.

But the making of “Hollywood Shuffle” is a textbook lesson for any filmmaker wanting to buck the system. Townsend wasn’t an experienced filmmaker. He didn’t go to film school and hadn’t directed a film before “Shuffle,” but was determined to tell a story about being a marginalized black actor in Hollywood, so he and pal Wayans wrote the script together. But without any studio backing, they were faced with financing the film on their own.

Eventually, Townsend raised $100,000, using money he earned from acting gigs in small roles in films like “A Soldier’s Story,” as well as maxing out his credit cards. Much of his cast and crew comprised of mostly friends of his, and filming was done on the run, minus city permits, over a two-year period.

The film may be outmoded, but the issues it raises still exist. While progress has been made, black audiences are still weirdly considered a niche crowd, and when a film targeted at that audience succeeds (like “Black Panther” for instance), it’s still a surprise.

The roles have gotten better, but, as USC’s Annenberg annual analysis of characters in motion picture content continues to indicate, Hollywood remains very slow to change.

Stereotypes may have become less offensive (especially the racial ones) and roles for black actors are not quite as limited as they were when “Shuffle” was made, but there’s still much work to be done.

Either way, “Shuffle” will continue to represent not only a piece of iconic black cinema but also offer an example for aspiring D.I.Y. filmmakers. It made its $100,000 budget back 50 times over ($5 million), which should thoroughly embarrass studios that routinely offer up multimillion-dollar disasters.

The film is remembered not only for its rollicking, in-your-face critique of the entertainment industry, but also for its unconstrained sketch format that still feels fresh today. Additionally, its enormous supporting cast included a wealth of black actors, from then-unknowns like Damon Wayans, to veterans like late “227” star Helen Martin. It helped establish Townsend as a director of note and also kickstarted the career of co-screenwriter and co-star Wayans, who would cast Townsend in his own directorial debut, the blaxploitation parody, “I’m Gonna Git You Sucka,” the following year.

It also anticipated Wayans’ future as the creator and star of the sketch comedy series “In Living Color,” as many of the movie’s standalone sequences could easily be transplanted onto the Fox sketch show. For example, one of “Shuffle’s” standout sequences, “Sneakin’ in the Movies,” could easily be “Men on Film,” one of “In Living Color’s” most popular recurring skits.

Townsend never did become the household name it seemed like he would be when “Shuffle” was released. No other film on his resume made the kind of impact that his debut did. Although, he has had a lengthy and prosperous career, directing movies like “The Five Heartbeats” and creating the Warner Bros. sitcom “The Parent ‘Hood,” which he also starred in for four seasons. He created a 30-year library of work on his own terms, and that’s precisely what “Hollywood Shuffle” is all about.

“Hollywood Shuffle” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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