Unless you pay close attention to the credits of certain TV productions and an assortment of non-blockbuster movies, it's possible that you've never heard of Robert Townsend. If so, that's a shame, because this versatile actor-director-writer-producer is one of the more appealing talents to hit screens, big or small, since the 1980s. His credits as director, writer, and/or actor include 1991's terrific The Five Heartbeats, about a struggling singing group facing the casual racism of the 1960s, and 1987's Eddie Murphy Raw, for which he was director and co-writer. What's also a shame is that Townsend hasn't achieved the star status he was heading for, at least if his first feature film, 1987's Hollywood Shuffle, is any indication of where he should be on that glittery road by now. Hollywood Shuffle, a small yet polished movie poking a finger at the limited, stereotypical roles black actors have to face time and again, remains after more than a decade the film Townsend is most known and respected for.
The movie's genesis is one of those fabled Hollywood success stories. Here's Townsend, a young black actor with only a handful of small acting roles on his résumé, putting together a funny, pointed comedy inspired by his experiences trying to make it in Hollywood without losing his soul or his dignity. What's more, he succeeded in directing, writing, and starring in a movie that looks more expensive that its budget a mere $100,000, a big chunk of that scraped out of Townsend's credit cards: wardrobe on his Saks Fifth Avenue card, catering on the Montgomery Wards, film stock on the VISA, and so on. Because film stock is so expensive, Townsend told his actors "there's only going to be one take," and he was able to forgo the required but expensive L.A. filming permits by dressing his crew in UCLA T-shirts so that they could pretend to be students learning how to film in the field. By splicing together leftovers from earlier short films he had appeared in, he managed some free film stock that he seamlessly incorporated into his new production. When money ran out, he worked as a touring stand-up comic, which meant that his 17 shooting days were spread over two years. Of course, all of this would be forgettable trivia had Hollywood Shuffle not turned out as good as it is, and if Townsend hadn't shown his chops as an actor and director with such solid range on display here.
Hollywood Shuffle's screenplay is credited to Townsend and co-stars Dom Irrera and Keenen Ivory Wayans. Townsend plays Bobby Tayor, who goes from audition to audition with ambition and the confidence that he'll soon get his big break, the lead role in a "gang from da hood" movie. We first see him in front of his bathroom mirror practicing his big death scene (later, the star of a UPN-like sitcom "Batty Boy ... half bat, half soul brother, but together he adds up to big laughs" tells him that a good script is any script where his character doesn't die). Like Walter Mitty, Bobby daydreams himself into screen roles that spoof such conventions as Bogart-like gumshoes, Indiana Jones adventures, Rambo war movies, and cheesy horror flicks. One of the best bits is a commercial for the first "Black Acting School," with classes (taught by white instructors) in Jive Talk 101, TV Pimps and Epic Slaves, and other pigeonholing stereotypes, some of which are closed to light-skinned black actors who aren't "black enough." There's a fold-over-laughing funny parody of Siskel and Ebert, "Sneakin' in the Movies," starring homeboys Speed and Tyrone.
Rather than making another Kentucky Fried Movie sketch comedy clone, Townsend attached his vignettes to the framing story of Bobby's quest for a role where his talent can shine. He yearns for liberation from his demeaning make-do job at the Winky Dinky Dog hot dog stand, and is determined to show his girlfriend and family that he's not just wasting his time or becoming part of the problem Townsend is illuminating. Of course, it isn't easy. A white director tells Bobby to act "more black," defined as "stick your ass out and bug the eyes." A casting call is looking only for an "Eddie Murphy-type," so Bobby has to compete against a roomful of lookalikes mimicking Murphy's Saturday Night Live characters.
A number of familiar faces appear along the way. Among them are the then-unknown Wayans brothers, Keenen Ivory and Damon. The most endearing presence is Helen Martin as Bobby's wise and loving grandmother. (A prolific, diverse stage and screen actor, Martin's admirable career began with the WPA in the thirties.)
In the end Bobby is forced to make a choice between career and dignity, and to Townsend it's a choice that should never have to exist in the first place.
Townsend has been favorably compared to Spike Lee, and Hollywood Shuffle drove home points Lee used less successfully in Bamboozled. Both films are about the media stereotypes that still restrain talented black performers. The chief difference, though, is that Hollywood Shuffle has attitude without the pretension, mean-spiritedness, or clenched-fist righteousness that can blur communication. This isn't a "black movie" or an "angry" movie or a movie out to Stick It To The Man. It's a fun, observant little comedy that, by the way, is about something worth maxing out the credit cards for. Instead of bile it has humor, which is the more reliable means of conveying a message.
* * *
Distributed, oddly, under MGM's "Avant-Garde Cinema" series, Hollywood Shuffle's new life on DVD deserves at least a commentary track by Townsend, but this release is, sadly, a bare-bones affair. The only bonus is the original theatrical trailer. The good news is that the print and transfer are very good and the audio, while only monaural Dolby Digital 2.0, is clear and clean. Other options inlcude a Spanish language track and subtitles in French and Spanish. Keep-case.