Hollywood Shuffle: Robert Townsend’s Comedy

A comic with Second City, Robert Townsend got stuck in unsatisfying movie roles. Having appeared in A Soldier’s Story and Streets of Fire, he established himself as a decent supporting actor–but no more

Townsend might have remained in that category indefinitely had he not had the audacity to challenge his fate. Raising $100,000, some as cash advance against credit cards, he co-wrote (with Keenen Ivory Wayans) and directed Hollywood Shuffle, based on his encounters on the job hunt.

The format, a series of daydreams and digressions, is based on a thin storyline. As a satire of black stereotyping, the film ridicules the whole industry–rude white producers, directors of black films, and TV critics like Ebert and Siskel. The humor derives from Townsend’s anger and frustration over the grotesque “choices” imposed on black actors.

Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, a black actor who’s auditioning for a sleazy pimp role in a blaxploitation picture. His heart isn’t in it, and he’s not the type, but there are no decent roles. In auditions, white filmmakers ask the actors to be “more black, more street.” No matter how “black” they are, they are never black enough, though light-skinned blacks don’t stand a chance. In a dream sequence, the NAACP pickets Bobby’s house, because he has “betrayed” his people and took the pimp’s role. Idealistic black actors are forced to become a new kind of Uncle Tom, caricaturing themselves for the profit of white producers.

Despite hopes of landing a lead role, the digressions result in a wear and tear on Bobby’s psyche. Could TV’s leading black actor of Bobby’s day really be the winged star of “There’s a Bat in My House,” a TV show that asks. “Can a black bat from Detroit find happiness with a white suburban family He’s half bat, half soul brother–but together he adds up to big laughs!” Dismayed, Bobby withdraws into a fantasy world that vacillates between omnipotence and humiliation.

He dreams of a black movie culture, from Rambo to King Lear, with himself playing all the heroes. In one reverie, he plays a black Superman, flying over the city; in another, he sees an acting school for blacks staffed with white teachers instructing their student how to speak, how to stand, and how to swagger. In an earlier sequence, actors are asked to swagger like Eddie Murphy–to be Murphyesque or Murphonic.

The principal complaint, demonstrated in a scene in which Bobby practices the line “You done messed with the wrong dude, baby,” is that the roles available to blacks are severely limited. The closing credits list a group of “Zombie Pimps” and of “Eddie Murphy Types,” with the same cast reappearing over and over in similar capacities. As Bobby watches classically trained actors turn up at casting calls to read lines like “Why you be gotta pull a knife on me” he despairs, but when he lands a starring hoodlum role, he feels worse.

In the funniest sequence, Townsend and Jimmy Woodard, in caps and jackets, play movie critics of a TV show called “Sneaking’ In the Movies.” Borrowing from Eddie Murphy’s character Rahiem Abdul Mohammed on Saturday Night Live, they use either profane or pretentious words like “effervescence,” relying on a wider range of gestures than the usual thumbs up or down to express opinions of films like Amadeus and Dirty Harry. At show’s end, they are thrown out of the theater by an angry usher.

Townsend shot some of the movie on bits of stock donated by directors he had worked with, and many scenes had to be done in a single take. Unevenly written, Hollywood Shuffle is a collection of skits interspersed with earnest domestic passages. Townsend’s missteps include tacking on an earnest ending and sugarcoating the parts played by women, thus making his movie more conventional. Bobby lives at home with his mother, grandmother, and kid brother, and he’s respectful and courtly with his chaste girlfriend. It’s the women who keep Bobb from losing sight of his real values. Even so, Hollywood Shuffle is a satire with enough comic breeze to override its deficiencies. What the film lacks in structure it makes up for in likable humor.

Ragged and movieish as it is, Hollywood Shuffle is funny and even poignant–which cannot be said about Townsend’s subsequent films as director, The Five Heartbeats (1991), Blankman (1993), and B.A.P.S. (1996).