HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE (1987)

  • Director: Robert Townsend
  • Writers: Keenen Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend
  • Starring: Robert Townsend, Anne-Marie Johnson, Craigus R. Johnson, Helen Martin, Starletta DuPois, David McKnight, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Lou B. Washington, Brad Sanders, John Witherspoon, Conni Marie Brazelton, Sena Ayn Black, Jesse Aragon, Verda Bridges, Grand L. Bush, and Damon Wayans
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, 1 Independent Spirit Awards nomination (Best First Feature)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Hoopla (library app), free streaming (with ads) on Tubi or Pluto TV apps, stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent on Amazon Video,  YouTube, or Apple TV

On its release, Hollywood Shuffle was compared to comic sketch movies like the Zucker BrothersKentucky Fried Movie. But while the Zuckers would parody anyone and anything for a laugh, Hollywood Shuffle’s target is laser-focused. This is a movie railing at Black stereotypes in major movies, from every perspective it can think of. It is the brainchild of Robert Townsend, who produced, directed, wrote, and stars in the movie. I am going to be honest, I definitely thought that the poster actually showed Eddie Murphy instead of Townsend, which makes me feel pretty racist for not being able to tell them apart. In fact, Townsend himself seems to have been in on the joke: the movie has an extended bit where his character gets an acting job because the producers are looking for “an Eddie Murphy type” (or as they go on to say, “the one whose Murphosity is the greatest”). Townsend had auditioned a few years earlier to be on Saturday Night Live but was rejected in favor of, yes, Eddie Murphy.

The overarching plot of the movie has Townsend playing Bobby Taylor, an aspiring Black actor who finds himself cast in a major movie as a ridiculous, over-the-top street tough. He is thrilled at what seems to be his big break, but over the course of the story starts to agonize about whether he’s perpetuating stereotypes by taking the role. The movie’s recurring refrain comes from various actors shrugging and saying, “But it’s work.” The repeated reply: “There’s work down at the Post Office.”

This story is interspersed with a series of extended silly sketches, some of which directly parody popular movies (at one point Bobby fantasizes about portraying “Rambro,” at another he imagines a movie called Chicago Jones and the Temple of Doom). These are mostly portrayed as Bobby’s dreams and fantasies. But the reality is very silly too: the biggest TV star in his community is “Batty Boy,” who plays an over-the-top Black stereotype and/or bat in a popular TV show called There’s a Bat in My House

Most of the cast is credited solely as “The Hollywood Shuffle Players,” which I found to be an interesting choice, and most of the sketches repeat cast members throughout. The main actors recognizable to today’s audiences are probably the Wayans brothers, Damon and Keenen Ivory. Keenen also co-wrote the script. Both went on to help found In Living Color (a show that also featured several other members of this cast at various times) and other success. Keenen directed Scary Movie in 2000, a very silly Zucker-type horror parody that held the record for highest-grossing film from an African-American director at the U.S. Box Office for five years.

But rather than Zucker-style “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” comedy, the comedy of Hollywood Shuffle comes from relentlessly focusing the movie’s perspective. For example, there’s an extended film noir parody that mostly works, not because it points out the parts of film noir that are silly, but because it knows that coming at film noir from this particular perspective is silly. Discussing a femme fatale, the detective narrator (also played by Townsend) comments: “I had one thing on my mind: doing the nasty. And I love doing the nasty.” Honestly, that focus is pretty much the only reason the movie still holds up.

Though Townsend’s movie wears its social conscience on its sleeve, it was accused by some even at the time of “passing the buck.” That is to say, it’s concerned about the depiction of African-Americans, while falling back on stereotypes in its depictions of other groups. There’s the stereotypically gay hairdresser, or the weird sketch involving a bunch of guys wearing dresses and taking a dance class that Townsend casually refers to with a slur. Nor does Townsend seem particularly concerned with the depiction of women, who are mostly relegated to the sidelines through the whole thing. Of course, you could say the same thing about much of Friends, and people seem to have forgiven that. Much of late-80s/90s comedy has not particularly held up over the years, and I don’t think Hollywood Shuffle is an exception to any particular degree.

For my part, I found Hollywood Shuffle to be perfectly enjoyable if I didn’t worry about its implications too much. There are plenty of jokes (like that “doing the nasty” line) that landed for me and made me smile, though there aren’t as many as I might want from a full on Airplane! sort of anarchist comedy. That said, I’m not sure I’d really recommend seeking it out unless you were planning on watching it anyway. Ironically, Townsend went on to direct Eddie Murphy’s best known comedy special, Eddie Murphy: Raw, along with a handful of other features. Probably his best known role today is as the lead on the 1990s sitcom, The Parent’Hood. 

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