HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE Blu-ray Review: Ramshackle Comedy Made Its Mark

Robert Townsend directed the independent Black comedy, first released in 1987, and now on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection.

Featured Critic; St. Louis, MO
HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE Blu-ray Review: Ramshackle Comedy Made Its Mark

From its title outward, Hollywood Shuffle announces itself as a blunt, take-no-prisoners commentary on the movie business’s longtime warped and even grotesque distortions of Black people on screen.  

We know the stereotypes.  From the slow-witted shuffle of Stepin Fetchit (Lincoln Perry) to the streetwise strutting of so many in movies like Superfly (1972), dignified representational opportunities for African American actors has been anemic at best.  While such history is no laughing matter, actor Robert Townsend used comedy as his inroad to shine a light upon it.  

Thanks to the buzzy success of Hollywood Shuffle in 1987, Townsend quickly advanced from hustling actor to one of the most prominent African American filmmakers of the next decade.  The Five Heartbeats (1991) and The Meteor Man (1993), an earnest music story and a superhero film, respectively, would follow.  

Townsend would direct and star in both, as well as helming Eddie Murphy’s blockbuster stand-up film, Raw.  All of this can be attributed to the uncompromising truths that Hollywood Shuffle delivers, wrapped memorably in big laughs. It’s a shoestring movie that would never exist were it not for the gumption and persistence of its makers.

We’re just two boys from the projects… We could do anything!”  That was the pre-fame realization of Keenen Ivory Wayans, Townsend’s friend, confidant, and co-creator of Hollywood Shuffle.  After a humiliating litany of dehumanizing auditions for unrecognizable jive talkers, pimps, dealers, street hustlers, and straight-up rapists, all headed up by Caucasian casting agents for white-led films (“Can you read again, but more black?”), a soul-crushed Townsend had the epiphany that the only way out was to make their own movies.  

The initial result is this film, Hollywood Shuffle.  Besides Townsend and Wayans, it also stars Anne-Marie Johnson, Craigus R. Johnson, Helen Martin, and Starletta DuPois.

Wayans would go on to be the premier African American film parodist of the 1990s and 2000s,  beginning with his own seminal film I’m Gonna Git You Sucka! (1988), Scary Movie (2000), several of its sequels, and the landmark sketch comedy TV series In Living Color.  Due to a reported falling out of sorts, Wayans is not in Hollywood Shuffle as much as was planned.  His absence on the Criterion Blu-ray bonus features is unfortunate.

The pointed, even accusatory comedy of Hollywood Shuffle is undeniable as well as irrefutable.  With over 85 years of movies as admissible evidence of racial caricaturing (at best) and outright demonizing (at worst), no one can claim that Townsend and company have no ground to stand upon.  

The phenomenon of why such persistent marginalization has occurred is postulated by Catherine A. John, who holds a doctorate in Literature with an emphasis in African diaspora literary and cultural studies, in her essay “Black Film Comedy as Vital Edge” (not included in the included Criterion foldout insert), stating: “What the white population took pleasure in was its own projected and distorted stereotypes of blacks, which used exaggerated fragments of African American culture acontextually. Why this form of humor has historically been funny to this population enters into deeply complex socio-psychic terrain.” Indeed, “since the days of Amos ‘n’ Andy the 'black image in the white mind' has influenced American racial humor."

If Hollywood Shuffle’s seams are showing, forgiveness is in order.  A truly independent endeavor from the outset to its release, the movie was shot in twelve days over two years on leftover 'short ends' of film stock from A Soldier’s Story (the Oscar-nominated Norman Jewison drama that employed Townsend just prior to this).  

Townsend remembers the on-again off-again making of Shuffle as thoroughly excruciating.  The film plays like a string of thematically related sequences (comedy sketches, even) made to fit together, sometimes on the fly.  And, per the filmmaker’s own recollection, it was.  

The through line is the plight of struggling Black actor and family man Bobby Taylor (Townsend), persistently chasing the only roles available to a man of his ethnicity.  To say that the parts are lacking would, of course, be an understatement.  When we catch up with Bobby, he’s running dialogue for an audition with his young son for the part of a scared-stupid cowerer.  He’s particularly plagued by the line “Why you gotta pull a knife?  I ain’t be got no weapon!”  

“I ain’t be got no weapon” literally resonates through Hollywood Shuffle, even as it veers into episodes of the actor’s imagined anxieties, the best of which being his fear of being cast as “an Eddie Murphy type,” trapped in a nightmarish room full of faux Eddies and then involuntarily transforming, and outright deviates into various sketches.  Among them is a fake infomercial for "Black Acting School"; a Siskel & Ebert-style film review show called "Sneaking Into the Movies," which has its own litany of movie parody clips; a film noir take-off called “Death of a Breakdancer,” and a more obvious spoof, "Rambro."

Hollywood Shuffle_1.jpg

While Hollywood Shuffle’s humor can feel in measures aggressive, tacky, weird, and not fully formed, it would be a terrible mistake to consider the movie as anything lesser than canon essential.  This effort, as ramshackle as it is, made its mark.  

From there, many people were, for the first time, made aware of and became sympathetic to the plight of Black perception by non-Blacks.  (If only there was a word for this kind of “awakening”…) Against all odds, the movie got out there, and acquired major, if only momentary, cultural buzz. 

So where on the new Blu-ray is the amassed evidence of this?  As in, press clippings, Entertainment Tonight profiles, Townsend on talk shows, whatever.  Where are the analytical voices chiming in to contextualize this from a 2023 perspective?  No one is denying Hollywood Shuffle its rightful place as a vital takedown of racist practices in Hollywood, but the sparsity of Criterion’s supplements menu leaves a bit to be desired. 

In a single 24-minute documentary, actors Rusty Cundieff, Anne-Marie Johnson, and Bobby McGee essentially tell the story of making the independent film.  The piece, entitled Doing the Hollywood Shuffle, is newly produced, and presents the participants stories well.  Their gathered assortment of memories creates a vivid and amusing portrait of the catch-as-catch-can determination that was so essential in getting Hollywood Shuffle made.  

Besides the film’s clever theatrical trailer (Townsend in a direct address playing up the fact that he’d charged much of the production to credit cards), the only other listed supplement is the audio of an October 2022 episode of film critic Elvis Mitchell’s radio program The Treatment, featuring Townsend discussing Hollywood Shuffle on the event of its 35th anniversary.  The half-hour conversation is quite enjoyable, as Mitchell is obviously a friend of Townsend’s, and has no hesitation about razzing him in good fun.  

Additionally, as evidenced by his own expansive documentary about the Black experience on screen, 2022’s Is That Black Enough for You?!?, Mitchell has his own expert understanding of the subject.  The episode is a great listen, even though it’s probably more convenient to check out via a podcasting app.   

A caveat to the above criticism is that there is also a newly recorded audio commentary by a solo Townsend.  Per Criterion’s usual template, it is not included on the “Supplements” menu; it has its own entry on the main menu.  Townsend’s track is tops.  Scene specifically, he dishes up continuous memories and motivations in a highly spirited and entertaining way.  

Though he takes Criterion’s invite seriously and is tremendously well prepared, he can’t resist lapsing into quick, motivated impressions of Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Jerry Lewis, and, of course, Eddie Murphy, who took being spoofed in Shuffle like a champ.  Townsend also offers a great tribute to the recently departed comedy legend Paul Mooney, who wrote for the likes of Richard Pryor, Chappelle’s Show and agreed to be in this film.  

While Hollywood Shuffle has been on Blu-ray before, this issuing has a new director-supervised 4K transfer.  The original monaural audio track has also been revisited.  The actual printed Criterion essay, quite fine in its own right, is by NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour cohost Aisha Harris.

If representation of race in visual media really matters -- and all proof points to it mattering broadly, personally, and in all cases, tremendously -- then Hollywood Shuffle must be considered a key contributor in clearing a path for, say, Black Panther, Eve’s Bijou, and whatnot.  Furthermore, Hollywood Shuffle’s logical conclusion is that the only way to achieve authentic representation on screen is to have authentic representation behind the camera.  The segment "Sneaking Into the Movies," in its own way, is an advocation for more Black film critics.

Dr. Catharine A. Johns, in her aforementioned essay, goes on to say: “The films by Townsend and Wayans are spoofing white stereotypes about blackness. They are actually suggesting that these depictions don’t really have anything to do with black people in addition to limiting dramatically the ability of black actors and actresses to get roles that demonstrate the breath of their skills.” 

Finally, Johns ruminates on Townsend’s and Wayans’ successes thusly: “Maybe this power within the culture has more to offer the outside world than is often acknowledged. Maybe the ability to make people laugh at their pain is a gift of the highest order. Maybe humor has the ability to confront, in disguised form, issues that are too traumatic for direct address. Maybe our comedians are bridge-builders and hope bringers with the symbolic machinery that maintains it all.”

Hollywood Shuffle

  • Robert Townsend
  • Dom Irrera
  • Robert Townsend
  • Keenen Ivory Wayans
  • Robert Townsend
  • Craigus R. Johnson
  • Helen Martin
Screen Anarchy logo
Do you feel this content is inappropriate or infringes upon your rights? Click here to report it, or see our DMCA policy.
Black filmBlu-rayComedyCriterionHollywood ShuffleRobert TownsendDom IrreraKeenen Ivory WayansCraigus R. JohnsonHelen Martin

Around the Internet