Hollywood Shuffle presaged a revolution that never came.
Before the righteous demands of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, before the code-switching identity politics of Key & Peele, before the blistering blackface satire of Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, co-writer-director-star Robert Townsend threw this stingingly funny satirical jab at Hollywood and its racist casting practices. Some 30 years later, little has changed.
Much like Keanu, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s 2016 big-screen debut, Hollywood Shuffle is a loosely structured narrative hung around a series of sketch-comedy concepts. Townsend stars as aspiring actor Bobby Taylor, who is close to winning the lead in Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. In order to get the part, he knows he’s going to have to act “blacker” than he actually is (whatever that means). This induces a crisis of conscience that plays out via a variety of daydream sequences and nightmare scenes.
Among these is Bobby’s imagined advertisement for a Black Actor School, where classically trained African-American thespians are instructed on how to play butlers, slaves or drug dealers so they can get work in Hollywood. Bobby later has an anxiety attack over being told by a casting director that the producers are looking for an Eddie Murphy type. (He’s told to be more “Murphonic.”) There’s also a variation on the Siskel and Ebert movie review show called “Sneakin’ in the Movies,” featuring two “real brothers.” They split on Chicago Jones, but both give enthusiastic thumbs up to Attack of the Street Pimps.
While the vignettes are funny, they’re also psychologically revealing.
As you can see, some of the satire is self-directed back at black culture, or at least a black subculture that Townsend and his co-writer, Keenen Ivory Wayans, perceive as perpetuating certain stereotypes (this was also largely the target of Bamboozled). And so while the vignettes are funny, they’re also psychologically revealing — of Bobby and of the slice of the African-American experience he represents.
Townsend is a true multi-talent, not only as an onscreen presence who’s able to slip among identities and personas with ease, but also as a director. The sketch structure allows him to employ a variety of visual styles, including a detective sequence that combines the black-and-white cinematography of film noir with the grainy texture of the Blaxploitation era. The narrative proper is more formally straightforward, although there is a nighttime conversation between Bobby and his uncle — a former nightclub singer who gave up on his dream and is now a barber — that employs the barbershop’s neon clock to evoke a throbbing sense of regret.
It is regret that Hollywood Shuffle embraces by its end, and for good reason. No Hollywood ending is in store for Bobby, just as little Hollywood change came about in the wake of Townsend’s audacious film.