Hollywood Shuffle is a 1987 satirical film directed by Robert Townsend that uses comedy to provide commentary on the stereotypical roles and portrayals of Black people in film and television. Bobby Taylor (Townsend) is an aspiring actor living with his family and working at a hot dog stand while hoping for his big break. He goes through the process of auditioning for the lead role in Jive Time Jimmy’s Revenge excited about the idea of becoming a big star and the money and changes it will bring for his family. But the experience also exposes him to the industry’s prejudiced beliefs about Black people and leads to questions about his morals and integrity.
I’ve seemingly always been aware of the Wayans brothers, Robert Townsend, Martin Lawrence, Eddie Murphy, etc. Those kinds of people who appeared on the scene in the 80s into the 90s. I wasn’t around when they first popped up on the scene. But because they’d been around before I was even born they’ve just always been in my periphery.
I remember some of Robert Townsend’s projects from the 90s. I don’t think I sought them out then but I’ve seen some of them in the years since. I think it was Meteorman where he wore a gray costume. The Five Heartbeats with the boy band. But I don’t know much of his earlier work.
I mostly remember The Parenthood, which was a television show where he played a dad. It was an okay show and I remember the main characters but the show wasn’t one of my favorites. It was one of those shows you watch because there’s nothing else on. Maybe it’s based on his character and the stories from that show but I’ve always thought of Townsend as being a bit of a cornball.
It wasn’t until I was recently watching They’ve Gotta Have Us that my perception changed. I realized that I’d formed preconceived notions based on the limited roles I’d seen Townsend portray. I’d seen pictures and maybe even clips from Hollywood Shuffle. But I’m pretty sure that I’d never actually seen the movie.
Looking for movies to review I had decided a while back that at some point, I was going to review Hollywood Shuffle. It had been on my list for a while but other movies ended up taking precedence. But watching They’ve Gotta Have Us I learned more about the inspiration behind the film. I thought it would be an especially fitting movie to review because of its parody and satire about Black people and their role in the film industry.
I watch a lot of movies but sometimes struggle to find films that fit my review criteria for Noire Histoir. This is in part because I try to switch back and forth between fiction from different genres and non-fiction documentaries. This is also along the lines of what I try to do with my book reviews.
The problem with films is that in more recent years, there have been a lot of movies with predominantly Black casts or focused on Black characters. But I try not to review things that are just entertaining. Instead, I seek out films that lend themselves to analysis where we can have a deeper discussion. We can have a conversation beyond just I liked this scene, or I liked when that happened. Where there’s if not social commentary, then some kind of meat to dig into.
Sometimes it’s a struggle because in recent years, especially if you look at within the last decade or two, in comparison to the 40s, 50s, or even beyond there’s certainly a greater quantity of Black movies but the quality isn’t always there. With the rise of Netflix, Showtime, Starz, and other streaming platforms there are so many more outlets. That should potentially mean more opportunities for Black people to make and produce projects or for projects to be made about Black people.
But the quality isn’t always there, with HBO maybe being the exception. This is reflected as well in the general market where there are a lot more projects across the board, but not all of them are good. Sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle to seek out projects where the production quality is good as well as the story and the acting.
Generally speaking, I stay away from straight-to-DVD films because the stories tend to be ridiculous and they’re a thrown-together mess. And I only want to review good projects. It’s difficult enough for projects with a predominantly Black cast to get made. But then the pool of things to choose from shrinks as you add criteria of having the overall movie which includes the story and characters be interesting and hopefully not stereotypical. And then to add having the acting be good? As you add those parameters it limits your options. That’s true across the board but especially regarding Black films.
Tyler Perry is pointed out as a great example of Black success in film and TV. I applaud and champion him for what he’s done as an entrepreneur, in building his company and creating opportunities through these different projects. But I also believe that the criticisms of the quality of his work are valid.
It’s probably been at least 10 or so years. But back then Perry hadn’t started producing films yet. He was still making the Madea-type projects, plays that could be purchased on DVD at Walmart. At that time, there were about a handful of them so it felt like there was enough of a difference between the titles to make them worth picking up. I remember my family and I would watch those just hanging out on a Friday or Saturday.
In the years since Perry has had several projects. Sure, Madea was his franchise player for quite some time so there have been more of those films. But he’s also branched out into other other projects, especially with regards to television. Yet past a certain point I couldn’t rock with him anymore.
I’m not an incredibly serious person and I don’t think every film or TV show about Black people has to present them as paragons of virtue or upstanding citizens. I like crime shows both nonfiction and true crime. I I don’t like most of the Power series but I do like Power Book III: Raising Canaan. I watch dramas where the characters aren’t the best examples of humanity and I’m fine with that. So that’s not the issue. But I have a requirement that the thivngs that I watch need to be good.
I watch more movies than I review here from the perspective of just looking to be entertained. But I try to dig a bit more deeply for the things that I review for this channel. I try to find films where the production quality is actually pretty good, meaning that it doesn’t look thrown together. And both the acting and story are good as well.
In recent years, when I look through a lot of movies, much of it is not very good. I have conversations with people (ex: family members, co-workers, acquaintances, etc.) and we talk about what we’re watching. Some of the shows we watch overlap. But I refuse to watch bad TV. I refuse to watch movies that are not good. Even if the project is starring, made, and/or produced by a Black person.
When I saw the clips of Hollywood Shuffle there was discussion of the film’s satire about stereotypes that you see throughout other Black films. The repetitiveness of character types meant to represent Black people. (Black men especially, because that’s what the film focuses on. Black female representation is still limited within film. And that’s something that we can discuss.) But consider the typical roles for Black males: thugs and criminals. In the past it was butlers, servants, pimps, etc. In the present, it’s expanded a little bit more. But it’s also the female equivalent for Black females.
Last year, after watching the Tina documentary, I read Tina Turner’s second book, My Love Story. She spoke about having had a rebirth in her career later on in life as a solo artist and her appearance in Mad Max. Turner aspired to also have a movie career and was approached about appearing in other films. Yet her film career didn’t really take off in that regard. The roles that she was approached about were very limited. They were typically a prostitute, maid, or something along those lines and she didn’t want those kinds of roles.
Over the decades the general film industry has continued to expand. But severe limitations continue to be placed on the ways in which Black people are represented on TV or in movies. There’s been some progress but it’s nowhere near where it should be.
I don’t have a problem with Black people playing bad guys or being villains. It’s less about only wanting positive characters and more about wanting variety in the presentation of Black people on TV and in movies. I don’t buy into the idea of respectability politics that if you negatively portray Black people in film and TV, that then affects how we are viewed and perceived in the real world. The reality is the people who would watch fictional movies or television shows with Black characters and apply their characteristics to real Black people were probably going to be racist or prejudiced anyway.
As adults watching a show or movies people are able to differentiate between White people carrying on in movies and TV shows and White people in real life. So I don’t buy into that idea that Black people should only take positive roles or only portray upstanding. Everyone doesn’t have to be the Huxtables as I’m perfectly fine with the portrayal of characters who aren’t like the best people. But, with the caveat that it’s balanced with stories about everyday people as well.
I don’t have a problem with projects where Black people are poor, struggling with drug addiction, raging alcoholics, or even running a criminal enterprise. As long as that’s balanced with Black people being shown as successful or well-adjusted.
You can have a film with some guy or lady carrying on, sleeping around with a bunch of different people, and all the drama that creates. But you have to balance that with romantic comedies or just regular boy meets girl films. Drama is fine but also shows Black people in healthy and loving relationships, just being regular people.
I don’t have a problem with the portrayal of less than stellar characters. People who have questionable morals as long as you balance it with the feel good feel, positive stuff. If there are 100 Black characters on TV and in the movies, 95 of them are criminals, drug addicts, deadbeat parents, etc. Strike a balance by having more variety.
Hollywood Shuffle opens with Bobby Taylor in the bathroom with his younger brother going over lines rehearsing for an audition. The script’s dialogue is just absolutely ridiculous, as is the tone and speech pattern that he uses. But I get it. This is the kind of nonsense that you see in films. Especially with this movie having been released in the 80s. Not that long after the blaxploitation movies of the 70s.
I’ve watched some of those movies and considered reviewing them. But when you look at them now, most are not well made. Typically, the characters are extremely stereotypical. The dialogue is ridiculous. And there’s nothing there for you to really review and discuss. I laughed while watching the opening scenes of the movie where Bobby is rehearsing for this audition. Because I completely got this. It’s a commentary on the reality of the type of roles made available for Black people. It was hard especially at that time to get a role in a movie or a TV show because there was a limited amount. And then of the limited roles that were available, here’s what you have to choose from.
It gets even deeper when Bobby heads to the actual audition. There’s a line of Black males and females of various shades and sizes waiting for their chance to audition for these incredibly ridiculous roles. They then appear before the casting directors and the directions and notes that they’re given as far as how to present these characters become increasingly insane.
I remember recently having a conversation with someone and we were discussing being witty, and having a sense of humor. To be clear, not goofy but being witty is a mark of intelligence. Here you have this comedy that’s showing the ridiculousness of these situations by exaggerating them. But within that, it offers a lot of commentary about the movie and television industries and Black people’s role within them.
Bobby begins in the bathroom, rehearsing for this audition. You then have him at the audition where multiple Black people are rehearsing on their own or with a partner which just pushes things over the top. It’s ridiculous and funny at the same time but also uncomfortably realistic. In a sense, it reminded me of watching TV shows like Insecure and the Netflix version of Dear White People where in the world of the TV show, the characters watch unbelievable TV shows with ridiculous commercials. And quite often, especially in Dear White People it would be based on a real TV show.
Hollywood Shuffle also features a TV show within the movie where a bat from Detroit lives with a White family. The bat is a guy in a bad bat costume. It sounds stupid but also sounds like something that might have been pitched as a 1980s sitcom idea.
Then various actors from the auditions appear in a TV ad for Hollywood’s first Black acting school which leads to further nonsense. It begins with Bobby portraying a slave who is a butler and gives way to him and the other actors speaking about their training. The school offers White acting coaches, teaching Black people how to appear authentically Black on film. One coach is shown teaching Black actors how to perfect their walk and properly speak jive.
On its own, the scene is sharp and witty. But then I remembered, Townsend mentioned in They’ve Gotta Have Us that he witnessed these things when he was first entering the industry as an actor. He was a Black person going on these auditions where he’d be reading for the role of a Black person. And here’s this casting director who is most likely White, telling you, a Black person how Black people sound and act.
Just think about how ridiculous that is. Let me show you how to walk like a Black person. Let me show you how to speak like a Black person. It would be ridiculous enough if a Black person was attempting to teach me how to walk and talk like a Black person. But it’s made even more ridiculous by a White person teaching Black actors under the guise of this being an acting school.
One of the guys is showcased as a successful graduate of the school. He went through the training course and just a year later, he’s played multiple criminals, pimps, rapists, etc. You laugh because it’s a silly idea but then the reality that scenes like this take place gives you pause.
Bobby continues through the audition process but in the meantime, he’s working a job at a fast food restaurant that he doesn’t like. He lives at home with his mom, grandmother, and younger brother. Bobby has a great relationship with his younger brother who looks up to him. He’s very passionate about acting as it’s what he wants to do. He has a part in this new movie and has appeared on TV. This role is something that he’s been working towards for quite some time and he’s made some sacrifices to go after his dreams.
Bobby has an uncle who in the past was a singer but his dreams didn’t work out. He let other people talk him out of pursuing his passion. Now he’s settled down and has a wife, kids, and responsibilities so he no longer has the freedom to pursue his dreams. Having had that experience he encourages Bobby to go after his dreams and not let anyone dissuade him or talk him out of pursuing what he’s passionate about.
The guys down at the hotdog stand where he works try to discourage him from continuing to pursue his acting career. They work at the hot dog stand and have different job titles and responsibilities. Nobody should ever feel ashamed of working an honest job. But because they’re content with their jobs they talk down on Bobby’s dreams of wanting more.
That’s something a lot of people can relate to. People have different dreams and values. Thus what it means to make it or to be successful varies from person to person. For one person, having a stable nine-to-five job, comfortable home, nice car, partner and/or kids, or some combination of those things is living the life for them. For some people whether or not they like their job isn’t important as long as it’s paying. And all of that is fine. But there are other people for whom that’s just not enough. They want more out of life. It might be that they want to travel the world. Or they want to create in whatever form that might take. It might be a particular profession, creative calling, entrepreneurship, etc. We all have our paths in life.
Bobby’s grandmother and mother encourage and support him in pursuing his dream. But when his grandmother realizes the kind of role that he’ll be playing, she’s disappointed. It’s not that she doesn’t want him to make it but rather that she’s not happy about him portraying these kinds of characters.
He goes through the audition process and the casting directors end up liking him. Bobby is successful in landing this part, which could potentially be a big break for him and lead to great things. But he has to then weigh those potential opportunities against this character who is a walking stereotype and a film with a stupid script. The dialogue and the things that occur in the scenes that they shoot are complete nonsense.
But it does ask a twofold question. On the one hand within the industry, you have these incredibly limited roles for Black people. And at that point, a relatively small number of films, TV shows, and other projects were centered around Black people or featuring Black people. There was scarcity in terms of the number of available roles as projects didn’t frequently come along. Black creatives would have to make decisions as far as what types of roles they were willing to play.
If your aim is working and there are limited roles and these are primarily the kinds of roles available, do you stand on principle and refuse to play these roles? Bearing in mind that you might potentially have to go without work. Or do you compromise and overlook principles for the shot to make it big? Or just for an opportunity to work? I can’t call it one way or another. But I certainly understand both sides of the equation.
While this is a satirical film, it asks a pretty poignant question. Is it more important for you to work or for you to do good work? I think it’s easy enough to say do good work but holding out to only do that might be different.
As we see here, Bobby is living at home with his mom so that relieves some pressure. But let’s say that he was out on his own as a young actor in Hollywood from some other part of the country without his family to serve as a safety net. If there were a few roles out there for you and of the few roles available for which you’d be considered they’re stereotypical. The roles are terrible parts that portray Black people in a negative light. But you need to keep a roof over your head and food in your belly. You’ll have to make a sacrifice somewhere. The question is where. The film approaches this discussion through comedy but touches on some really good points.
Overall, Hollywood Shuffle is a pretty short film clocking in at just about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Going into the film, I knew that Robert Townsend was in it. But this was my first time watching and I was surprised to see the amount of other Black comedic actors and actresses that appear in this film. There are quite a number of the Wayans siblings, mostly the older ones. A number of them would go on to be on In Living Color. So here you have Keenan Ivory Wayans, Damon Wayans, and Kim Wayans.
There are also quite a few other actors and actresses, some of whom I might not know by name, but recognize their faces and have seen them in other things, especially during the 90s. It’s pretty cool that Townsend was able to get all of these people together with a relatively small budget. But then again, I think that’s because I’m viewing it from the present after many of these actors went on to do incredible things in the film industry. But back then, a lot of them were just starting. In Living Color was several years away. And if I’m not mistaken, the Eddie Murphy skit in Hollywood Shuffle paved the way for Robert Townsend to then direct Raw for Eddie Murphy.
A lot of these actors and actresses were either at the start of their careers or just hadn’t blown up as yet. I believe that this was Robert Townsend’s first film and it was independent. Something that he put together and at that time, I guess everyone else was looking for work and trying to get their names out there by supporting each other. Likely due to those factors he was able to get so many of these other people that would go on to become legends in their own right to appear in this project.
I wasn’t allowed to stay up to watch The Arsenio Hall Show but I remember being a kid growing up in the 90s. And seeing clips from the show where many of these Black celebrities were guests. Seeing The Wayans talking about In Living Color around the time it blew up.
I remember seeing an episode where Martin Lawrence was there to promote “Martin” which was about to premiere. He was explaining the premise for the sitcom, and how it was going to be a show where he would play a lot of different characters like in Coming to America and he described Sheneneh. It would go on to be what I consider a legendary sitcom. But to see him pitching it right. To see him joking about being early on in his career when Eddie Murphy was the man. Appearing in movies with him or them hanging out going over to Eddie Murphy’s house, and his girl wanting to leave him to stay at Eddie’s house.
I saw enough clips from this adult show that I never got to see during its first airing and seeing many of those people here made me feel nostalgic. You look at this project and within a few years, many of these people would have begun putting out their legendary projects. At that point, you wouldn’t have been able to get them all together again for a film like this. In some ways, it reminded me of another film that I loved as a kid, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka. Funny films that had moments of social commentary.
To think of it, there are quite a few of these satirical comedies from the late 80s to the early 90s. They’d poke fun at these common tropes that are found in a lot of stereotypical Black movies. But in this case, Hollywood Shuffle combines that commentary and those criticisms in a very sharp and witty way. It’s not a lecture but rather en pointe satire. Using comedy to make some very poignant points and astute observations. Overall, I think this is an incredible movie, relatively short, and very enjoyable. I highly recommend checking it out.
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- Black Hollywood: They’ve Gotta Have Us [Movie Review]
- The Spook Who Sat By the Door [Book Review]
- A Century of Black Cinema [Movie Review]
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