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Cinemalphabet: H is for Hollywood Shuffle

October 7, 2010

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 and in order to uncover its sublime delights, you just have to get over all of that. 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 a flaw I’m willing to overlook. 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 bully 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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2010 12:08 pm

    I was unfamiliar with this film but it sounds really interesting from your review! I haven’t seen Robert Townsend in too many things so I’ll have to check this one out. I’ve had The Meteor Man in my netflix queue for a while- do you know if that’s a fun one?

  2. October 7, 2010 12:30 pm

    Great essay on one of my favorite comedies!

    My dad and I saw this reviewed on Siskel and Ebert one Sunday in 1987, and it was actually playing at a indie-type theater on Cape Cod that day. We both laughed hysterically, and recorded it later when it was on cable. That movie was my introduction to the term ‘ho’., BTW, when my parents heard the line “Hos got to eat too”, they just about fell to the floor.

    I still manage to quote the line “I play a tough con who tries to fuck this new inmate” at inopportune times.

  3. October 7, 2010 1:23 pm

    The Meteor Man is pretty cheesy, but definitely has some humorous moments. It’s not one of his better efforts, but still not an entirely terrible way to pass the time.

  4. Mystery Man permalink
    January 25, 2011 6:34 pm

    great review. I plan on watching/reviewing it myself in a day or two. looks like it’ll definately be worth the time.

    swing by my site sometime, if you get the chance!

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