What's up folks. Welcome to Ken's Hollywood Shuffle. This is a blog about film, television and other entertainment-related topics. My inaugural blog post is a review of Robert Townsend's comedy Hollywood Shuffle, which inspired the name of this site.
Robert Townsend Pulls No Punches In Hilarious Take on Hollywood and Race
Writer/Director Robert Townsend denounces Hollywood's treatment of black actors in this uproarious comedy about an aspiring young black actor looking to catch his big break.
Hollywood Shuffle (1987) is an extremely funny and insightful look at the film industry's less-than-stellar treatment of aspiring black actors. Though the film is more than 20 years old, the issues it addresses are still very pertinent today. It's true that things are better for black actors now than they were when this film was made, but the situation is still pretty dismal. Black actors still face many of the same problems that the characters face in this film. For every Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Don Cheadle, Forest Whitaker and Will Smith, there are hundreds of talented black actors trying to get their foot in the door who either can't find any work at all or are mainly offered stereotypical parts, such as drug dealers, street hustlers, gangbangers, pimps, junkies, convicts, thugs, the funny sidekick, etc. There still remains a very limited number of great roles for black actors in both film and television. And the situation is even worse for black actresses.
Townsend plays a struggling young actor named Bobby Taylor. While working at his dead-end job at a hot dog stand, Bobby dreams of one day becoming a famous, award-winning actor. Although Bobby is a talented actor, it's difficult for him to find any decent roles. When he goes to casting calls, he finds that most producers and directors are only offering black actors stereotypical roles, such as pimps, slaves, drug dealers, gangbangers, etc. He wonders why he's never asked to audition for the action heroes, the romantic leads, the James Bonds, or the superheroes. During his rounds to auditions, he runs across classically trained black actors who have studied their craft for many years reduced to trying out for degrading stereotypical roles.
Bobby is faced with a dilemma when he's offered the leading role in a blaxploitation-type film called Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. Jimmy's character is a lowlife, nearly illiterate pimp/gangbanger. Bobby's grandmother and some others feel he should turn the role down as it reinforces black racist stereotypes and sends a bad message to young black kids. On the other hand, most of Bobby's actor friends think he'd be crazy to turn down the role because of the exposure it would bring him and the doors it could open for his career. They believe he should take the role no matter how degrading and stereotypical it is, as it's a starring role, and he may never get such an opportunity again. To add to his quandary, he has a ten-year-old brother who looks up to him, and he doesn't want to play a role that would influence him in a bad way.
Townsend, who collaborated on the screenplay with Keenen Ivory Wayans and Dom Irrera, no doubt drew from his own personal experiences as a struggling young black actor in Hollywood for this film. The film manages to be extremely funny while at the same time is an astute examination of racial politics in Hollywood and the compromises black actors often have to make in order succeed in the business. Townsend addresses these serious issues with large doses of humor.
Some parts of this film are flat-out hilarious. One extremely funny segment involves a spoof of "Siskel & Ebert & The Movies" called "Sneaking in the Movies" where two homies from the hood critique films in their own profane, street-slang-ridden fashion. And one of the films they review is called Attack of the Killer Pimps in which a group of zombified pimps terrorize local hookers. The visual of zombie pimps bunched up together and cold mackin' is perhaps one of the funniest sights ever committed to film.
Another hilarious segment involves Bobby playing a scene from Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. Sporting a huge afro wig and strutting around like a demented rooster on crack, Townsend acts like he channeled every pimp, street hustler and drug dealer he's ever seen from the very worst blaxploitation flicks for his portrayal of Jivetime Jimmy. This scene alone is worth the price of admission. It even has James Brown's super-funky "The Big Payback" as Jimmy's theme song.
Hollywood Shuffle is a very impressive debut for Townsend in the director's chair. It’s a riotous and highly entertaining film. In addition, Townsend assembled a terrific cast, which includes Anne-MarieJohnson, Helen Martin, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Paul Mooney, Damon Wayans and Franklin Ajaye. However, there are a few minor problems with the film, and one is concerning the Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge segment. Although the segment was funny as all get out, it seemed a bit outdated. It played more like a '70s blaxploitation film rather than a stereotypical black film that would be made in 1987. The film also got a little preachy towards the end.
These are just minor flaws and in no way take away from the film's overall impact. What's most important is that Townsend was able to keep viewers thoroughly entertained throughout the entire film while also getting his point across.
(Originally published at Suite101.com.)
Hollywood Shuffle at Amazon