One of the best collections available on the Criterion Channel is one called Film Plays Itself, a self-reflexive assemblage of movies about movies. Here you’ve got your classics, like Sunset Boulevard and 8½. You’ve got your “out-there” stuff, like the experimental Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or Godard’s New-Wave Contempt. And you’ve got some modern triumphs like The Player and Adaptation. Each of these sort of screams CINEMA! in a not-so-subtle way, which is not a knock against them so much as a bit of a prerequisite for inclusion on the Criterion Channel in the first place. But the highbrow reek of such an overly-academic, carefully-cultivated program of thinkfilms threatens to become overbearing without any deviance — or at least it would, if not for Hollywood Shuffle.
In the mid-1980s, Robert Townsend saw the same problem that every black actor saw in Tinseltown: you either play a criminal, a convict, a slave or some combination of the three. Moreover, depictions of those figures were by and large stereotyped approximations rather than actual characters. Shuffle sparked when a white casting director turned Townsend down for a role because he “wasn’t black enough,” and Townsend recognized this as a brand of systematic racism baked into Hollywood itself. He only had to look to the local cinema at the time for evidence: the sole major studio production with black leads in the 1985-’86 movie season was The Color Purple, written and directed and produced by white men and a clear-cut case of overly-sentimental, stereotypical depictions of black men and women on the silver screen.
Technically, the plot of Hollywood Shuffle cuts to the quick: young actor Robert Taylor (Townsend) successfully auditions for a role in a seedy exploitation film (Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge), but grapples with the conflict between his career aspirations and the example he’s setting for his younger brother. All Robert has ever wanted to become is an actor, and yet the system insists that he’s a black actor. This reconciliation, again, is clear-cut and well-realized, but the traditional plot beats are only half of Hollywood Shuffle. The other half sees Robert vividly dreaming up a series of in-depth satires on the stereotypes of the African-American experience as depicted in Hollywood, structured as a series of sketches that persistently intrude on Robert’s day-to-day comings and goings.
This structure, quite simply, shouldn’t work as a film. The sketches are long and detailed, multiple scenes per sketch, such that by the time we return to Bobby’s waking life there’s a jolt of discordance. At one point Bobby is playing basketball with some friends when conversation turns to criticism of Siskel & Ebert and how there are no black movie critics around to “get it right”. This inkling of an idea suddenly kicks off a ten-minute sketch called “Sneakin’ In the Movies”, in which Townsend and Jimmy Woodard review four separate (fake) films and give their unfiltered opinions. Then, just as suddenly, we’re back with Bobby.
But this format ends up doing more than simply working. As outlandish as the sketches get (and they get extremely outlandish), the threads back to Bobby’s experiences are always crystal-clear. One sketch imagines the NAACP publicly picketing Bobby for agreeing to star in a stereotypical role as a pimp. By the end of the sketch the crowd of reporters and picketers in front of Bobby’s house have drawn weapons and begun chanting “kill him!” But as Bobby wrestles with taking the role in Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge, the extreme nature of each sketch somehow seems less extreme. That jolt of discordance from daydream to reality begins to seem more natural, more a part of Bobby’s everyday life as a black man dreaming of making it in an industry dominated by white men. If we feel a discordance, it’s because there very definitely is one.
The funniest, most searingly satirical sketch is one called “Black Acting School”, wherein hopeful young black actors can sign up to be taught how to “act black” by a faculty of white professors:
The likes of Spike Lee and Melvin Van Peebles already had a foot in the door prior to 1987. But Hollywood Shuffle shouldered the door wide and made way over the next few years for films that tackled racism with a similar unblinking directness, like Lee’s Do the Right Thing, and films directed-written-produced by black men and women, like Stir Crazy, Harlem Nights, House Party, Friday and Keenan Ivory Wayans’s I’m Gonna Git You Sucka (Wayans also co-wrote and co-stars in Shuffle).
And the lasting effects of Hollywood Shuffle extend to today. Due respect to Dave Chappelle calling out Key & Peele for allegedly redoing his show, but it’s Townsend that was among the first to break those specific conventions of unapologetically black sketch comedy. In a recent interview around the time of the release of Peele’s Get Out, Townsend notes the somewhat cyclical nature of the industry: “There’s a season where everybody wants diversity, and there’s a season it’s not so much in vogue.” It’s true that in the past five years more black writers, directors and producers have broken more glass ceilings in Hollywood than in the previous fifty years, with particular successes for Get Out, Black Panther, Straight Outta Compton, Moonlight, Peele’s Us, and many others. But there’s still a need for Hollywood Shuffle, bitingly relevant today more than thirty years after its release, even though the Bobby Taylors of today can dream a little bigger because of it.
Hollywood Shuffle is now streaming on the Criterion Channel. And here’s a listing of the programming in Criterion’s Film Plays Itself series:
Footlight Parade (1933) — Lloyd Bacon
Sunset Boulevard (1950) — Billy Wilder
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) — Vincente Minnelli
The Big Knife (1955) — Robert Aldrich
Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) — Vincente Minnelli
Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard
8½ (1963) — Federico Fellini
La ricotta (1963) — Pier Paolo Pasolini
David Holzman’s Diary (1967) — Jim McBride
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) — William Greaves
Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969) — Agnes Varda
Day for Night (1973) — Francois Truffaut
The Day of the Locust (1975) — John Schlesinger
Hollywood Shuffle (1987) — Robert Townsend
Close-up (1990) — Abbas Kiarostami
The Player (1992) — Robert Altman
Adaptation. (2002) — Spike Jonze
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