After years of paying the bills with commercial gigs and extra work, by the mid ’80s, Robert Townsend was making a decent living performing in comedy clubs and appearing in small roles in big movies like “A Soldier’s Story,” “American Flyers,” and Walter Hill’s action-musical extravaganza “Streets of Fire.” Most of his auditions, however, were still for stereotypical roles as pimps, slaves, and gangbangers; his agent told him that Hollywood only made one decent Black film a year, and “A Soldier’s Story” was it for 1984.
Frustrated by the lack of opportunities, Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans created their own by co-writing the movie industry satire “Hollywood Shuffle,” which Townsend directed and self-financed on savings and credit cards. The 1987 comedy —now part of the Criterion Collection — stands alongside “Stranger Than Paradise,” “She’s Gotta Have It,” and “sex, lies, and videotape” as a touchstone of the ’80s independent film movement, and its status as a classic has now been confirmed by its entry into the Criterion Collection. The new Criterion Blu-ray and DVD editions of the film are essential viewing for aspiring filmmakers, as Townsend’s commentary track and accompanying interview provide hours of inspiration and information, as well as an entertaining history lesson on Hollywood in the 1980s.
©Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection
Although Townsend was driven to get behind the camera following a particularly degrading meeting with a white director who wanted him to “act more Black,” (an experience hilariously recreated in “Hollywood Shuffle”), he began thinking like a director years earlier as one of 700 extras on Walter Hill’s “The Warriors.”
“We’re shooting in Central Park,” Townsend told IndieWire. “The prop department hands out sticks, bottles, chains, and bats, and says, ‘When you hear action, we’re rolling nine cameras, use your weapons and run!”
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Townsend decided that rather than enter the chaos, he would run in the other direction, to the body of the fallen gang member. “So when they started rolling the cameras, I ran to the body. Everybody’s running around crazy and I’m just standing by the body, looking intense.” After the take, the first assistant director approached Townsend and told him that Hill loved what he did and was upgrading him, meaning he would make more money. Townsend was thrilled, then confused when everyone took a 20-minute break. “I was like, ‘What are we breaking for? What’s going on?'”
When Townsend was called back, he discovered that Hill had restaged the scene and was blocking it around what Townsend had done. “In that moment, I, this little young actor in the middle of 700 people, had affected the scene,” he said, adding that watching Hill and his crew adapt their plan stayed with him on every set from then on. “After that, every time I walked on set, even though I was an extra I walked on the set like I was a director. ‘What are we shooting today? What’s the first shot?’ And that’s when I started to learn about directing in a weird, crazy way.”
By the time he directed “Hollywood Shuffle” eight years later, Townsend was ready to apply everything he had learned, and the flexibility he witnessed on the “Warriors” set came in handy while shooting quickly without permits. “I thought in a very strategic way,” he said, remembering that his idea of a good location was one where the police couldn’t see the crew. “Oh, the police can’t see us in between these buildings? This is perfect.” The most important thing in Townsend’s mind was creating an environment that would allow actors to contribute in the same way that he did as a young extra. “If you can create fertile soil for the actors to play in, they’ll give you everything. I just tried to have fun and created that soil, and I think everybody in this little film did some of their best work.”
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