Release Date(s)1987 (February 28, 2023)
Studio(s)The Samuel Goldwyn Company (The Criterion Collection – #1173)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: A-
- Extras Grade: B+
Hollywood Shuffle is both a biting satire of how prominent racial stereotypes determine casting in movies and a rollicking romp about young actors trying to establish careers in a tough industry.
Robert Townsend was a first-time director—he had never made even a short—when he made Hollywood Shuffle, and shot it in episodic segments financed with his own savings and credit cards (a fact he proudly announces in the film’s trailer). He also plays the main character, Bobby Taylor, a young Black man much like himself. Bobby auditions for roles as thugs, drug dealers, and pimps—the only parts available at the time to African-Americans. Working by day at the Winky-Dinky-Dog hot dog shop, he’s frustrated at the nowhere direction his career is heading.
His luck changes with a call-back for the lead in the exploitation flick Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. But to get the part, he has to act “blacker.” This causes him inner conflict. He wants and needs the job but is embarrassed by having to utter street-talk dialogue, especially when rehearsing in front of his grandma (Helen Martin) and younger brother (Craigus R. Johnson). He has visions of himself as the star of big-budget Westerns, war movies, and romantic dramas, which provide very funny daydream scenes.
Shot over a two and a half year period, Hollywood Shuffle is a patchwork quilt of intentionally idiotic skits, gag commercials, domestic scenes, TV sitcoms, fantasy sequences, and staged auditions. The theme running through them is the foolishness and single-mindedness of producers to see Blacks in only limited roles.
The film offers several highlights. In a lengthy “commercial” for Acting School for Blacks, white teachers instruct Black students how to jive-talk, shuffle, act like a pimp, and portray a noble slave. Sneaking in the Movies, a “program” in which two motor-mouthed Black dudes, Speed and Tyrone, exchange thoughts, a la Siskel and Ebert, offers reviews from a distinctly urban sensibility about whatever movies they were able to sneak into that week. There’s a Bat in My House is a dumb sitcom about the exploits of Batty Boy, “half bat, half soul brother, but together he adds up to big laughs.” An extended sequence on Sam Ace, a private eye film noir, pokes fun at then-trendy hair styles. Shot in black and white with a look that conjures smoky noir movies of the 1940s and early 1950s, the film encompasses many genre traditions as Townsend’s Ace is faced with a mystery to solve.
Townsend is right on the money with his exaggerated depiction of casting, as three casting agents interview candidates, asking inane questions as auditioners squirm and try to hold back their anger in order to get the role. In one scene, when a call goes out for an Eddie Murphy type, several hopefuls—clones of the famous actor—sit in a row, waiting to audition. These scenes are funny but also lay bare the unfortunate reality of Hollywood casting. Often, skin tone is a key factor. Actors are not dark enough to play pimps and thugs and not light enough to be cast in leading roles.
Townsend plays numerous roles within and outside of the fantasies and displays a wide range of characterizations, voices, expressions, accents, and physical comedy. He also conveys charm and a nice guy vibe. We root for him and feel for his plight.
Because of its small budget and the guerrilla nature of how it was made, Hollywood Shuffle has a cobbled-together look which is sometimes jarring. A number of scenes could have been sharper with more rehearsal and a few more takes, and a few segments go on too long and could stand some editing. The best aspect of the film is its ability to lighten an important message with laughs and avoid a preachy approach. Though casting for movies has become more enlightened in recent years, Townsend shows a wide audience the realities Black actors have faced for years.
Hollywood Shuffle was shot by director of photography Peter Deming on both 16 mm and 35 mm film in color and black-and-white. It’s presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. According to information provided by Criterion in the enclosed booklet, “this new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution on a Lasergraphics Director film scanner from the 35 mm original camera negative.” The transfer was approved and supervised by Robert Townsend. The black-and-white footage was shot with 16 mm cameras and blown up to give the footage a grainy, 1940s appearance. Visual quality varies from segment to segment because of the unorthodox way the film was shot. In some scenes, lighting is flat and uninteresting, whereas in other scenes far more care is devoted to atmospheric lighting, as in the Sam Ace mini-noir. Outdoor scenes look great, with excellent detail. Color palette features a range of hues from bright primary to muted tones. The best sight gag is the Black actors made up to look like Eddie Murphy, some with darkened skin. Bobby’s bedroom is bathed in blue light at a moment when he is particularly down about the poor progress of his career. Spoof commercials contain on-screen accolades and a phone number as the merits of the school are touted.
The English 1.0 LPCM soundtrack is mastered from the original monaural track of the 35 mm magnetic track. English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear and distinct throughout. Often, for comic effect, actors exaggerate their delivery in audition scenes to emphasize the cliched lines they must read. Townsend himself is a master of accents. Epic-type music accompanies the daydream scenes. Details such as the zombies dragging their feet, car engines on Los Angeles streets, spray from a Jheri Curl aerosol can, and a slight echo in Bobby’s bathroom as he runs lines with his younger brother are nicely delineated. The score by Patrice Rushen and Udi Harpaz is multi-faceted, accompanying the various segments with different styles.
Bonus materials include the following:
- Audio Commentary with Robert Townsend
- Doing the Hollywood Shuffle (24:12)
- Radio Interview with Robert Townsend (27:02)
- Theatrical Trailer (1:52)
Robert Townsend begins his informative commentary by stating he was the co-writer (with Keenen Ivory Wayans), producer and director of Hollywood Shuffle, his first film. As an actor, he felt he was “in a box” getting only roles as pimps or gangsters. He had appeared in A Soldier’s Story and yearned to do similar films with broader roles. He turned to stand-up comedy and met Keenen Ivory Wayans. Both were getting bad auditions. Hollywood Shuffle was shot in 12 days over 2 1/2 years. Many people in the cast went on to successful careers in the industry. Townsend notes that the film is semi-autobiographical. Black actors were trying to show Black people as human beings. Casting was vital. The audition sequence in the movie was improvised, based on actual experiences. He talks at length about the “Eddie Murphy type” sequence. He knew Murphy and didn’t want to offend him. When the film was shown to Murphy, who was huge star in 1985, at a private screening, Murphy laughed at the sequence and even asked Townsend to direct him in an upcoming concert film, which became Raw. Hollywood Shuffle changed Townsend’s life. He was offered many projects and opportunities but he vowed to make only movies and TV shows that showed Blacks in a positive way. The film is about a dreamer who takes destiny into his own hands. He financed the film partly by maxing out his credit cards, with the entire cast deferring their salaries. He insisted that, once money came in, the actors would be the first to be paid, and he was true to his word. A film about empowerment, Hollywood Shuffle as a satire was a “bull’s eye.”
Doing the Hollywood Shuffle – In this series of interviews, Rusty Cardieff, Anne-Marie Johnson, Bobby McGee, and other members of the Hollywood Shuffle Players discuss the film. It’s a reflection of what Black actors were being faced with. They were frustrated at the limited opportunity to play varied roles. Director Robert Townsend would do improvisations with the cast - “a good lesson in patience.” There was a great deal of rehearsal. The cast was assembled in a minivan and rushed to locations. Lacking official permission, they had to work fast. Some scenes were shot on Hollywood Boulevard. This kind of filmmaking is referred to as “controlled chaos.” Townsend trusted the cast to deliver even though they had little professional experience. “We were performing what was happening in real life.”
Radio Interview – This conversation with Robert Townsend was recorded for film critic Elvis Mitchell’s radio show, The Treatment, and was first aired on October 22, 2022. Townsend and Mitchell talk about how things were for Black actors in 1987. Townsend, whose career began in 1979, discusses how limited roles were for African-Americans. He often felt degraded during auditions when he was told to act in unflattering ways. He and fellow actor Keenen Ivory Wayans decided to make their own film. Cast in A Soldier’s Story, Townsend was impressed by the script and director Norman Jewison’s ability to portray men of color positively. Because he had never made a film before, Townsend couldn’t get financing from typical sources, so he used his savings, managed to get hold of short ends of 35 mm film stock, and applied for numerous credit cards. He employed his theater training to make the film. To maximize the comedy, he made sure each actor’s specific talents would be used. The overall goal of Hollywood Shuffle was “to show how absurd the life of a Black actor was.”
Booklet – The accordion-style booklet contains a critical essay by Aisha Harris, color photos, cast and key crew list, and information about the director-approved digital transfer.
The sketch structure of Hollywood Shuffle allows Townsend to employ an assortment of visual styles. The film is a poignant satire with plenty of laughs and illustrates in entertaining fashion unpleasant truths about how casting fosters and maintains racial stereotypes.
- Dennis Seuling