by Aisha Harris | Criterion.com
Laying bare the typecasting of Black actors in the 1980s, Robert Townsend’s crackling directorial debut, Hollywood Shuffle (1987), is a satire that has lost none of its bite. The film’s protagonist, Bobby Taylor (Townsend), a young aspiring actor living in Los Angeles, is on the cusp of what he thinks might be his big break: the lead role in a grotesquely stereotypical blaxploitation knockoff called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. When he gets a callback for the part, his agent makes clear that he can’t bring too much of himself to the table, informing Bobby that the filmmakers are looking for an “Eddie Murphy type.” The guideline quite literally haunts Bobby’s dreams: in one of the film’s many fantasy sequences, he imagines attending the audition alongside a roomful of other Black actors who apparently all got the same memo. There they are, dressed as the comedian appears on the cover of his cheesy number-two single from 1985, “Party All the Time”: black leather jackets, gold necklaces, thick mustaches (most of which are very obviously painted on). The camera tracks sideways along the wall of actors, as each does his best Murphy impression.
But what is an “Eddie Murphy type,” exactly? Back in 1987—when Murphy starred in that year’s box-office champ, Beverly Hills Cop II, as well as the stand-up feature Eddie Murphy: Raw—it was one of very few categories that Hollywood envisioned a Black male performer falling into: fast-talking, potty-mouthed, charismatic, lithe, but above all (and this is key) Eddie Murphy. As in, if you, dear Black performer, weren’t the man himself, good luck trying to land a part that wasn’t a jive-talking pimp, a jive-talking gang member, or a jive-talking servant.
Hollywood Shuffle’s skewering of the entertainment industry’s mistreatment of Black artists was born out of the frustration of such limitations. Townsend, approaching thirty, had had some minor parts in a few movies, including the critically acclaimed drama A Soldier’s Story (1984); he’d also done some stand-up-comedy TV appearances. But the pickings were practically nonexistent. After A Soldier’s Story was nominated for three Oscars in 1985, including Best Picture, he told his agent he wanted to do more projects like it—films with a rich tapestry of Black characters and challenging subject matter—but the agent shot him down. “He said, ‘Robert, they only do one Black movie a year. They just did it. Be happy,’” Townsend would recall in an interview years later.
Welp. Enter our earnest protagonist Bobby Taylor, the hair-obsessed murder suspect Jerry Curl, the Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert of the hood Speed and Tyrone, the quippy private dick Sam Ace, and the many other eclectic characters bursting from the creative minds of Townsend and his Hollywood Shuffle cowriter, Keenen Ivory Wayans. The origin story—which practically became a legend in its own right, thanks to its retelling in pretty much every profile and review at the time—is that Townsend raised money and maxed out his credit cards to make this movie on a shoestring budget of around $100,000. Townsend had limited film stock to work with, and sometimes multiple takes of scenes weren’t possible. It occasionally shows in the film that everything had to be done economically, but that’s part of the movie’s charm. (Less easy to gloss over is the tossed-off use of a homophobic slur in one scene, unfortunately common in comedies of that era.)
As one of my favorite professors in grad school liked to say, being a Black performer throughout most of the twentieth century came with the recognition (or fear, even) that whatever role you managed to land, you’d better make the most of it. That’s how transcendent performances so often found their way into subpar movies, like those by Glynn Turman in J.D.’s Revenge and William Marshall in Blacula. Hollywood Shuffle is far better and smarter than either of those films—and, in fact, that was the kind of schlocky fare Townsend set out to pointedly critique. But the same principle nonetheless applied to the making of Townsend’s film; the director and his troupe of enthusiastic performers (including beloved stalwarts John Witherspoon and Paul Mooney) channeled their energies and hungry souls into creating memorable characters for themselves, even with limited resources. And they were able to do so on their own terms.
The film opens with Bobby preparing for the Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge audition in his bathroom with the assistance of his little brother, Stevie (Craigus R. Johnson). There’s Bobby, reciting the most asinine lines (“I ain’t be got no weapon!”) in an exaggerated “ghetto” accent while strutting and gesturing like he’s J. J. from Good Times. (Does it matter that blaxploitation was no longer really a thing by the late eighties? Nope; Black on-screen roles hadn’t improved much since that genre’s heyday.) Obviously, this is embarrassing, and even worse, dehumanizing; Bobby’s grandmother, played by Helen Martin, can hardly hide her disappointment in him for going after such a role. (Martin herself was a veteran of the stage and screen, having worked with the likes of Orson Welles and Ossie Davis; she was perhaps best known for her roles on Good Times and 227, another sitcom.)
But when everybody’s only looking for an Eddie Murphy type, what’s a Black performer supposed to do? Play the game? Or exit the game, relinquishing your dreams altogether?
More to the point, as Bobby asks B. B. Sanders (Brad Sanders), a Black TV star who plays a human-size bat named Batty Boy on a sitcom called There’s a Bat in My House!: “How do you tell a good script?”
B. B.’s pragmatic response: “Does your character die in the script?”
“Then it’s a good script.”
These are the agonizing questions at the heart of Hollywood Shuffle. As Bobby struggles to reconcile their ostensible answers, he can’t help but dream even bigger and louder. His existential crisis plays out through comedic vignettes (not unlike those parodying various film genres in the 1977 sketch comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie) that function as both a brief history of Black American stereotypes and an exercise in resistance against them.
“Black Acting School,” for one, is a searing parody of an infomercial offering lessons in how to perform all the stereotypes that those casting directors want: enslaved people, muggers, street punks. Courses include Jive Talk 101 and Shuffling 200. It might be the segment that has most endured over the last several decades, frequently cited as still accurate whenever someone wants to bemoan the current state of Black Hollywood. But lots of art can be “relevant”; that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any good. The primary reason “Black Acting School” still feels fresh is simply because it’s painfully funny. Townsend, dressed in a butler’s uniform, slips comfortably from a dim-witted, Stepin Fetchit–like drawl at the start of the scene and into a faux British accent for the rest, as he plays the part of a spokesperson, delighting as a white instructor teaches a student how to “walk Black.” His lighthearted delivery of “You, too, can be a Black street hood, but this class is for dark-skinned Blacks only—light-skinned or yellow Blacks don’t make good crooks” hits you right in the gut with its sharp dissonance. The other performers in this scene—such as Grand L. Bush, whose Black Acting School graduate enthusiastically recounts having “played a rapist twice”—are equally committed to the bit, their characters’ “real” accents prim, proper, and cheery, as though they’ve all happily accepted their lot in some nightmarish Twilight Zone.
Bobby’s very active imagination also conjures up a twist on Siskel and Ebert’s At the Movies (poking fun at the dearth of Black critical perspectives featured on such shows, while showing a reverence for that audience’s effusive engagement); a black-and-white film noir where he’s a detective investigating a break-dancer’s death; a sequence where Bobby is “Rambro” (a.k.a. Black Rambo) as well as a Shakespearean actor. You can see the seeds of In Living Color, Chappelle’s Show, and Key & Peele sprouting from these biting send-ups.
Much of Townsend’s ire is directed at the white gatekeepers in the industry; the director (Eugene Robert Glazer), writer (Dom Irrera), and casting director (Lisa Mende) of Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge are portrayed as grotesquely tone-deaf at every turn. (Though by almost all accounts from Black performers of that era, their lines might as well have been lifted directly from real-life casting calls.) Yet Hollywood Shuffle is also a commentary on Black artists and their willingness to play the game without questioning it. B. B. Sanders may be rich, with a personal limo driver and several bodyguards (viewers will notice a young Damon Wayans among them). But he’s rich because he plays a giant bat—not a billionaire superhero, mind you, but a “half-bat, half–soul brother” from Detroit—living with a white suburban family on a cheesy sitcom. He has sold out, the movie makes clear.
So has one of the guys Bobby encounters at the casting call, who at first goes on a rant about how the script is “bullshit” and the role is for an “Uncle Tom.” Just seconds later, when the man’s name is called for his audition, a switch is flipped: “That’s me! Good luck, brother!” he exclaims jovially, all too eagerly dashing off to go read for the part. Later, that same guy will shuffle back on-screen again to bring the sentiment full circle.
While Townsend was making this film in which the spirit of Eddie Murphy haunts Bobby’s hero’s journey, the real Eddie Murphy was at the peak of his powers in Hollywood. In the movies he’d starred in up to that point, his characters rarely had the opportunity to interact with other Black people on-screen; his primary costars, including Judge Reinhold and Nick Nolte, were white. He was facing pressure from his Black peers to use his unprecedented superstardom to open doors for others. (Spike Lee was among his fiercest critics in the eighties.) While promoting Beverly Hills Cop II, Murphy told the press about the Black Pack, a crew of comedians who would “hang out together and bounce ideas off each other.” The group was composed of Murphy, Mooney, Arsenio Hall, Keenen Ivory Wayans, and . . . Robert Townsend. Murphy brought on Townsend to direct Raw, and Wayans as a writer and producer.
Yet one Black power player can’t upend decades of deeply ingrained Hollywood racism alone; nor can one witty satire. Two years after Hollywood Shuffle was released, Townsend was asked by a reporter if he was being offered a lot of parts in the wake of the movie’s success. With a “wry chuckle,” he replied, “Oh, sure. All the ones that Eddie [Murphy] or Richard [Pryor] have passed on.”
And new stereotypical bugaboos have arisen for Black performers in the years since, including the Magical Negro (otherworldly, they help white people solve their problems!); the Black Lady Therapist (she’s paid to help white people solve their problems!); the Black Best Friend (they’re friends with white people who need help solving their problems!); and Tyler Perry’s Madea.
Still, Townsend did land a multipicture deal with Warner Bros. following the success of Hollywood Shuffle, and continued to direct (and occasionally star in) the kinds of movies that the industry hadn’t traditionally been interested in making, like the 1991 Motown-inspired musical drama The Five Heartbeats and the 1993 superhero comedy The Meteor Man. And more than three decades later, the game has changed drastically for Black screen performers in many ways. The “Eddie Murphy type” has made room for the Denzel and Will types, which in turn made way for the Viola and Regina—take your pick—and Kaluuya and Boyega types. There are clusters of new Black Packs made up of creatives who hang out and help make one another’s projects. The bar for a “good” script has been raised above whether the Black character dies.
In Hollywood Shuffle’s most poignant scene, Bobby visits his uncle Ray (David McKnight), a barber who gave up a singing career for a steadier job that would help feed his family. Bobby worries he has made a mistake in pursuing acting and expresses doubts about his talents. Ray has his own regrets, and insists that Bobby keep pushing for his dreams. “I stopped believing in me, started listening to all those other people tell me what I couldn’t do,” Ray says. Luckily for us, Robert Townsend, and the many other Black filmmakers we’ve come to appreciate, both before him and since, didn’t listen to all those other people.