Getting a job in Hollywood is tough enough and nearly everyone must make their way up from forgettable and potentially embarrassing small parts. The amount of good roles that aren’t already spoken for is tiny. This number shrinks even more for parts reserved for black actors. Plenty of comedies have been made about the struggles of actors; many of them make you laugh till it hurts. Hollywood Shuffle (1987), about the steep climb of the aspiring black actor, makes you laugh, then makes you think till it hurts.
The movie was the creation of Robert Townsend who, after trying to catch on in the industry and finding only bit parts as hustlers and gang members, decided to make his own movie, co-writing, directing and starring in the film that was shot on stock he begged cinematographers to give him from whatever they had lying around. The movie’s budget limitations show but so does its heart, and it puts across the frustration and the complicated hopelessness of trying to break into an industry that doesn’t respect you all while providing a I-laugh-so-I-don’t-cry type of humTownsend plays Bobby Taylor, who lives with his mother, younger brother and grandmother in a cramped LA apartment and skips work at his job at a hot dog stand to go to auditions. He’s up for a role as a jive-talking hood that is competed for by every black actor in town, one that can make him a star. He gets it, finally a break, but decides that it comes with too high a price to his personal dignity, the respect of his family and his idea of what a model should be to his brother. This story thread is punctuated with fantasies, dream sequences and television programs that are send-ups and parodies of the struggles Bobby faces. He envisions a Julliard for shuffling and ebonics, a movie review show in which the critics act as consumer guides, telling the audience whether they should pay to see the movie or just sneak into the theater, and a big-budget blockbuster with a black hero—The fantasies are very funny (they are performed by Townsend and others who appear in the main Bobby story) and some of them drag (there’s a private eye spoof that goes on for too long but is hilariously redeemed by the villain being vanquished because the hero withholds the activator for the baddie’s beloved Jheri Curl), but as the movie goes on, they become less frequent and the movie changes tone to one closer to poignancy. The visions become sadder, as when Bobby has a nightmare where he’s hired simply because, of the candidates, he most resembles Eddie Murphy or when he has visions of the NAACP picketing his house for taking such a negative part (“We will never play Rambo,” says a protester played by Paul Mooney, “until we stop playing Sambo.”). There’s truth in all the skits but they, as the movie does, become more pointed and sullen toward the end. This is a comedy but it doesn’t want you to forget the reason it has to be made. Race representation in movies is a serious subject, and though Townsend is happy to be light about it, he recognizes there are an untold number of actors who dream of playing Lear but are given only the chance to play pimps and junkies.
If a joke lands early in the movie, there’s a chance a similar one will return later with a more caustic bent. During the early audition a casting agent gives helpful tips to candidates, such as “Don’t forget to give me sparkle,” which is echoed with a line near the end when the director of Bobby’s movie demands that Bobby’s performance be “more black.” Though Bobby can be applauded for doing the right thing by quitting the part, Hollywood Shuffle recognizes that for others looking for jobs with rent to pay, that decision might not be as easy, and besides, just because Bobby quits the movie, it doesn’t mean it won’t get made anyway (in this case, Bobby’s hustler role is taken by an actor who has a monk’s devotion to upholding the dignity of black people—until the second he’s up for an offending part). And the ending is sweet and satisfying, extolling a message that it isn’t necessary to sell out, but it isn’t particularly hopeful. Bobby, sitting in a make-up chair, is shown to be starring in a commercial. “There’s always work at the Post Office,” he says, blurring the line of how Townsend feels about his experience. Is this the best a black actor can hope for? Ride the roulette wheel of stereotypical roles or take dignified but artistically barren jobs? That’s it?
It’s this hard-edge ruthlessness that distinguishes Hollywood Shuffle,which is more thoughtful than it is funny, and elevates it beyond the level of a spoof. The movie does a nice job of introducing some other ideas into its rather focused story, a tough trick for a comedy. For example, we learn that light–skinned black actors can find more work acting as if they are Latino, begging the question of how bad things must be for Latino actors (though this sensitivity to other minorities makes one wonder why it wasn’t similarly extended to gay people and women, who are either exaggerated stereotypes themselves or cardboard non-entities). The movie has tons of laughs, particularly early on (all the scenes at the hot dog stand, in which many serious conversations are had while the employees wear ridiculous wiener-festooned hats, are priceless), but it’s the vinegar in the dressing that makes the movie last.
Townsend co-wrote Hollywood Shuffle with Dom Irrera and Keenen Ivory Wayans, both of whom have parts in the movie, and Wayans must have used his experience in the creation of his brilliant “In Living Color” TV series, but the lion’s share of the praise belongs to Townsend, who falls in line with a great number of black filmmakers including Oscar Micheaux, Melvin Van Peeples, Spike Lee and others who were denied opportunities to tell their story and, through invention and hard work, told their own. This is a movie that pokes holes at the industry’s racism but never forgives it or let’s you forget it. There must be a lot of talented actors working at the Post Office.