Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Rated R

Starring: Robert Townsend, Anne-Marie Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans and John Witherspoon

Rated: R Drama/Music

Hollywood Shuffle is an urban cult classic!  This clever and humorous film centers upon Bobby Taylor, a Black man, who is attempting to attain his “pie-in-the-sky” aspiration of being an actor in the elite motion picture capital despite the industry’s negative stereotyping of African-Americans.

Set in the later 1980s, the film opens with Bobby practicing movie script lines of stereotypical, Black “jive” lingo with his much younger brother, Stevie (Craigus Johnson).  Bobby is to audition for a role in Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge, a film about street gangs that is replete with negative stereotypes of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans.  Bobby has several reasons, including being able to greater support his family, that he wants to become an actor.  His mother (Starletta DuPois), girlfriend, Lydia (Anne-Marie Johnson) and Uncle Ray (David McKnight) are supportive of Bobby’s aspiration.  However, Bobby’s grandmother (Helen Martin) wants him to have greater dignity in himself and the path he wants to take to reach his goals.  This is especially vital, as he is a huge influence on Stevie.  Because of Bobby’s impact, their grandmother repeatedly reminds him to honor the sacrifices Blacks have made for him and even suggests for him to seek a stable job, perhaps as a mail carrier, until an opportunity worthy of him arrives.

Adding to the conflict Bobby faces are professional and personal struggles.  His intense desire to become a successful actor causes him to miss work at his job, Wink Dinky Dog, a hot dog joint.  Owned by Mr. Jones (John Witherspoon) and micromanaged by Donald (Keenan Ivory Wayans), his dedication to his work is questioned because he is often absent due to going on casting calls and auditions.  Professionals in the industry continue to suggest or demand that he succumbs to negative stereotype roles, including acting as a pimp, slave, butler, athlete and gangbanger of Blacks.  They also want to limit his range in order for him to be like the very few successful Blacks working in Hollywood and dismiss the art and significance of acting for the sake of money.  These professionals, of whom almost all identify as White, attempt to define from their limited perspective what it means to be “Black”.  Bobby’s own conscious is in further turmoil when other Black actors question and complain about the negatively-stereotyped and severely-limited acting roles offered African-Americans.

What will Bobby do … will he seek to continue acting?  Will he try to enact change, from within his acting roles?  Will he heed the advice of his family members to take chances to reach his dream?  Or will he listen to his grandmother, as “there’s work at the post office”?  Check it out and see!

Hollywood Shuffle was, on so many levels, a hit film!  Incorporating satire, the film brought to light the racial discrimination, colorism, lack of diversity within “Blackness” and negative stereotyping that Blacks experience in the motion picture industry and media.  Blacks suffer these, not just for the art of their craft but just to work in order to support themselves and loved ones.  The film also illustrated that, due to such a dearth of roles then and now in 2019, Blacks are often pitted against each other in order to work.

Hollywood Shuffle countered the typical theme of an impoverished Black family, often used in films and the media.  According to Harriet Margolis in her essay, “Sneaky Re-Views: Can Robert Townsend’s Taste for Stereotypes Contribute Positively to Identity Politics?”, Townsend provided “an authentic glimpse into real middle-class African-Americans, in stark contrast to the roles they are offered in the film industry, and Bobby Taylor’s final words in the movie’s final scene can be seen as encouraging pride and respect in the community.”

Hollywood Shuffle contained scenes that are now iconic in contemporary film history and social commentary.  These scenes include the segment, “Sneaking into the Movies”, where two Black men, similar to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert on their show, At the Movies, detail their unique perspectives on films.  They also include the segment, “Black Acting School”, where White acting coaches teach Black actors how to “be” Black.

This film was be a springboard for a number of actors, introducing them to new viewers.  Additionally, a number of actors would work together in the future, significantly in Townsend’s HBO show, Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime and the films, Eddie Murphy Raw, Meteor Man and The Five Heartbeats

If all these factors were not poignant enough, Robert Townsend did the almost impossible in writing, directing and producing this film.  Hollywood Shuffle was created on a budget of only $100,000, of which $60,000 was funded from Townsend’s own credit cards!  Taking two years to complete, the film grossed greater than $5 million within a year of its release, prompting Hollywood Shuffle to become an independent film success and launching Robert Townsend to become a principal power within the motion picture industry.

For 1987, Hollywood Shuffle won the Amiens International Film Festival’s Golden Unicorn for “Best Film” – Robert Townsend, who also won “Best Actor” Award.  For that same year, Townsend also won the “Coup de Coeur LTC” and the “Critics Award” of the Deauville Film Festival.  The film was also nominated for three other awards, including Robert Townsend (director/producer) and Carl Craig (producer) for the Independence Award – “Best First Feature”.  The other two nominations were for the NAACP Image Award: Robert Townsend for “Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture” and Helen Martin for “Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture”. 

In a reflection piece, “30 Years Later, the Searing Critiques of Hollywood Shuffle Still Sting” authored by Garin Pirnia of Vanity Fair, Robert Townsend acknowledges the growth of diversity of acting roles since the release of his groundbreaking film.  While there is still much work to do in providing equitable access to Blacks, in front of and behind the cameras, Townsend remains hopeful. 

Hollywood Shuffle paved the way for following Black filmmakers, including friend, acting mate and co-director, Wayans, Julie Dash, Matty Rich, the Hughes Brothers, Kasi Lemmons, John Singleton, Ava DuVernay, Ryan Coogler and Jordan Peele to “be” the change they wanted to see and create their own projects.  In the interview with Pirnia, Townsend affirms, “There’s something about the character of Bobby Taylor sticking to his integrity in the film that truly made him successful, and I think that still resonates with a lot of young filmmakers and artists who watch the film,” Townsend says.  “The thing for me is, I just want to continue to create the stuff I’m creating — but hopefully my legacy will be that my body of work affected people in such a beautiful way that it inspired them, entertained them, and made them think.”

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