Cinemalphabet: H is for Hollywood Shuffle
The legend surrounding the 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle is probably more widespread than the movie itself. Roger Ebert summarized it in his glowing review of the film and its writer/director/star Robert Townsend:
He begged cinematographers for leftover film, borrowed every dollar he could find, talked cast and crew into working for deferred payments and somehow made an expensive-looking movie for less than $100,000. The comparisons are being drawn to Spike Lee, another young black filmmaker who broke the rules and had a hit with “She’s Gotta Have It.” It’s a cliche that young novelists write their first novels about young novelists writing their first novels. Townsend’s “Hollywood Shuffle” falls within this tradition. It is a movie about a young man much like Townsend, who makes the rounds, fights stereotypes and dreams of the day when there will be a black Rambo.
Hollywood Shuffle is not a polished film. It looks low budget, amateurish. The production values do not enhance, and in order to uncover its sublime delights, you just have to get over all of that. The camera work was the thing that most got on my nerves when I first saw the film. It’s clear that Townsend, while in possession of exceptional talents is not in possession of a tripod. Since this isn’t an episode of H:LOTS all that jittery camera work gets a bit tiring. The cinematography is not the worst every committed to film, but it can be very distracting. That said, Robert Townsend’s an astute pop culture critic and the film is careful in its examination of the way issues of black authenticity and stereotypes intersect. Despite being careful, the film doesn’t shy away from Townsend’s central argument: Hollywood doesn’t want anything more from its black actors than retreads of the existing limiting stereotypes and tokenization. Those who play by the rules can achieve fame; those who aren’t willing to do so won’t have time to starve to death on their ethics as they will be knocked out of the way by blactors without the same perceived ethical angst. While the former point is not particularly provocative, the latter – a harsh dismantling of the “black solidarity” myth was perhaps the best discourse Hollywood Shuffle has to offer.
The structure of Hollywood Shuffle is often described as, “a series of skits”, but I see it as a pastiche of internalized messaging transmitted to black folks, particularly men – women’s roles are ironically unexamined and at times are as problematic as anything in a mainstream Hollywood film – and how various male characters’ experiences and self concept are shaped by those messages. Townsend has a great feel for characters and setting, but oddly the dialog outside the “skits” is painfully stale and stilted. But considering it was first film and given the circumstances under which it was created it’s flaw I’m willing to overlook. But enough academic chow chow, Hollywood Shuffle is a comedy with some serious laugh out loud moments. We’re not talking internet laughs, but the kind that put an ache in your belly and a wheeze in your chest. Townsend’s a masterful physical comedian and is backed by a roster of equally talented performance, most of whom you’ll recognize from many other projects they’ve done. The best scenes revel in the insidery goodness that is generic black culture from a Nana who always tells her grandson, “There’s always work at the post office,” to a thug who is felled by his own lust for jherri curl activator. Townsend knows how to shape skits, though at times some of them went on way past their sell-by date.
It’s interesting that Ebert mentioned Spike Lee, who later made Bamboozled, a provocative exploration of the themes tackled by Townsend’s film. For the record, I think both films are great, however, I could only watch Bamboozled once. I’ve seen Hollywood Shuffle a zillion times. Unlike Bamboozled, Hollywood Shuffle takes a more humorous approach in its blistering critique of race in Hollywood and for me, this results in it being a far more artistically successful film.