- Movie Rating -

Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

| March 20, 1987

Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle is a very funny comedy send-up of the treatment and compartmentalization of black actors who have been routinely forced into roles as slaves, pimps, crooks, and killers.  It had to be a comedy because the reality is all too real even as I write this review.  I just finished writing my review of the gawd-awful Whoopi Goldberg comedy Burglar which shoves her into the role of a motor-mouthed burglar suspected of murder and both of these movies open on the same day as Street Smart which casts Morgan Freeman as a violent street pimp.  Also in theaters right now is Richard Pryor playing a con artist in Critical Condition and Meshach Taylor as a stereotypical gay window dresser in MannequinAND just to add misery to misery only four black artists have been nominated at this year’s Academy Awards*.  The speed of progress seems to be dead on the side of the road.

Such irony hits you like a sledgehammer, and no one understands this better than Townsend whose journey making the film is probably the journey of any black filmmaker trying to get anything made that isn’t a genre action picture.  He was appearing in a series of films like Cooley High and A Soldier’s Story and Streets of Fire and when those films were finished, he asked those filmmakers for the leftover film stock to make his movie.  This was a repudiation of the normal frustrating route of moving through the cattle call of audition after audition and taking roles of little-to-no significance, (certainly of little-to-no dignity) before either quitting or being shoved into white-motivated Hollywood’s mold for a black actor.  It is possible to earn the clout of Eddie Murphy or Richard Pryor or Whoopi Goldberg or Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington, but don’t spend your life waiting it out.

Through the use of satire, Townsend traces the fate of Robert Taylor, a good-hearted but somewhat naïve young black man with dreams of being an actor.  Those around him dismiss his dream, particularly his fellow employees who are excited to work their way from $2 an hour to $2.50 working a hot dog stand.  Yet, while Robert holds tight to his dream he walks out of his latest audition which would have him playing a crotch-grabbing, mush-mouthed street punk because he refuses to sell out to clichés.  This leads him into a series of fantasies in which he sees himself an old black and white film noir, a slave epic, a Rambo-style war picture and a Siskel and Ebert-style show featuring two “homeboys” reviewing movies.  That bit works beautifully as the critics offer thumbs up, thumbs down and gives at least one film the finger.  When the satires are on point, they are very funny.  I especially liked the noir parody in which Townsend’s private eye interrogates a potential murderer by stealing his bottle of activator which causes the suspect’s prized jheri curl to begin drying out.  

And yet, this film is far from perfect.  Most of the sketches run too long and some of the film’s more serious moments feel a little dry.  But it is the message that works best.  Townsend wants to comment on the dire circumstances of Hollywood’s refusal to take black actors seriously, and in particular their obsession with turning out another Eddie Murphy which leads to the film’s funnier sight gag.

* The black nominees this year:
Denzel Washington for Cry Freedom (Supporting Actor)
Morgan Freeman for Street Smart (Supporting Actor)
Callie Crossley for her short film Bridge to Freedom.
Jonas Gwanga for Cry Freedom (Score and Original Song)

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Comedy