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Robert Townsend on the biting satire Hollywood Shuffle: It was hard to make a movie then | Movies

Robert Townsend on the biting satire Hollywood Shuffle: It was hard to make a movie then |  Movies


RRobert Townsend moved to Los Angeles in the early 80s, determined to become a Hollywood star. And though he quickly emerged as a draw on the stand-up circuit, the Chicago native struggled to come to terms with the structural racism he encountered while auditioning for bit parts in film and acting. television, the vast majority of them hard-fisted stereotypes, from snitch to slave.

Before long, Townsends was streaming calling stories, some of them humiliating, most of them hilarious, that became too overwhelming for his regular post-mortems with Keenen Ivory Wayans, who was going through the exact same thing.

Even as he landed meaty supporting roles in Cooley High and A Soldiers Story, Townsend tried to involve Wayans in a film project about their career heartaches, but Wayans was skeptical. Townsend never went to film school, let alone filmed or wrote anything. Townsend didn’t have much money either. What he had was training with a Chicago theater troupe called the Experimental Black Actors Guild, starting at age 14. I was surrounded by technicians who were black writers, directors, producers, set designers, Townsend told the Guardian. I was saying Keenen, we can do this. There’s nothing mystical or magical about it.

In 1987, a year after Spike Lee announced himself with Shes Gotta Have It, Townsend released Hollywood Shuffle, a 78-minute comedic allegory about the compromises the industry imposes on black actors in exchange for honest work. Townsend shows an impressive lineup as hero Bobby Taylor, a starving young actor who dreams of roles in slave dramas and blaxploitation films that both parody familiar tropes while yearning to seriously play them. His off-screen hustle also left a mark.

Townsend ran out of a handful of credit cards, or $60,000 in debt, to make Hollywood Shuffle, which grossed over $5 million at the box office. Roger Ebert called it’s a logistical triumph. It heralded Townsend as a multi-talented star and darling of the independent film world, and established screen careers for co-stars Wayans (In Living Color), John Witherspoon (Friday), Anne-Marie Johnson (In the Heat of the Night) and even introduced Damon Wayans. This month, it was announced that the film would be added to the Criterion Collection slate in February. Its impact on independent cinema has been underestimated for too long. There’s probably a 20-year period where people say, I’m going to make my movie with credit cards, notes famed film pundit Elvis Mitchell. This is Hollywood shuffle.

Thirty-five years later, Hollywood Shuffle still ranks among the industry’s most scathing indictments. One particularly withered, called Black Acting School, in which Bobby imagines himself endorsing a method that teaches black actors how to be even blacker, even anticipated the rise of black Britons dressed as black American characters. Did Townsend know? No, I didn’t, he said. When I started as a stand-up, all these black comedians came up with a similar kind of, Wuzzup Im from the ghetto, baby thing. To stand out, he does the same lines, but with a classy accent. But I have to say, I don’t know if black British actors are trained differently or if they’re hungrier, but there’s something to be said. But there is a wave that has come, and they are really strong actors. Like, John Boyega is a beast.

Townsend’s towering ambition would have been obvious to any of his Hollywood Shuffle collaborators. He cut Wayans from a Siskel and Ebert-style parody after the latter continued to miss rehearsals. I knew he was looking for honey, Townsend jokes. I became crazy. I take this real seriously. I started in the theater in Chicago. I learned good manners there: be on time. Be well prepared. Warm up the actors. Speak through the rhythms of the stage. I was really taking time. When it’s your money and you only have a little bit of it, you have to be really smart.

In total, Hollywood Shuffle was shot in two years over 12 days. To help maintain the project’s budget, he salvaged unused films from his regular gigs. Back then, a movie magazine was about 10 minutes long and a scene could be six and a half minutes long, he explains. So whatever was left, they threw it away or gave it away. When I finished A Soldiers Story, I called [director] Norman Jewison and [the producers] and said, I’m going to make my own movie. Can I have the remaining film? They said: Take as much as you want.

A picture of Hollywood Shuffle
A photo from the Hollywood Shuffle. Photography: British Film Institute

Filmmakers today don’t understand how difficult it was back then to make a film. You have to put it together, tear it apart, look for clips in a trash can, glue it together. Also, most of this editing took place in a porn post-production studio. Keenen came up with the idea, says Townsend. There were 16 different editors in the different suites. I had never heard of anyone directing porn. And it was like, put your head down! Put your head back! Rejoin! Rejoin! Everyone ended up coming down to my suite. They were like, Oh, you’re working on a real film.

Eventually, Samuel Goldwyn Jr purchased Hollywood Shuffle from Townsend for $100,000. And when it came out in the spring of ’87, it was the talk of the town. But when Eddie Murphy called to see for himself while touring Europe, Townsend and Wayans hesitated. In another aside from the film, Bobby fantasizes about being cast for an Eddie Murphy guy and wins the role arriving in blackface. And as a private screening Townsend and Wayans hosted for Murphy in Burbank approached, the co-writers swallowed hard.

Hi Eddy! shouted a member of his entourage when the scene finally arrived. They talk about you! A hush fell over the theater, as Townsend and Wayans considered the repercussions of offending a dear friend who happened to be the greatest entertainer on the planet. But by the end of the scene, Murphy’s horn filled the room. During the final credits, Townsend asked Murphy to apologize. No man, I love it, he told Townsend, before asking if he’d be up for directing a concert film he had in mind. It turned out to be Eddie Murphy Raw. Eddie lived in a whole different stratosphere, says Townsend. He wasn’t gonna hear about any actors, Hey man, went to another audition where they wanted me to be you. I think there was a beautiful truth that he discovered. But I shared my truth. Back then it was, we want you to be like Eddie! Can you laugh like Eddie? All of that stuff was real.

After that, Townsend couldn’t be wrong anymore. He has made more feature films, perhaps none more beloved than his Five Heartbeats-inspired Temptations. He headlined an HBO comedy special, Robert Townsends Partners in Crime, which not only set a pattern for Wayanss In Living Color, but it even nailed Blacks on soapy TV which, again, was decades away from becoming Andy Cohen and Tyler Perrys’ thing. His imaginative sitcom, The Parent Hood, ran for five seasons.

A photo of Meteor Man
A photo of Meteor Man. Photography: Cinetext/Sportsphoto/Allstar Collection

At 65, Townsend works at a comfortable pace. He was set to shoot a one-man stage production, Living the Shuffle, three years ago, but the pandemic hit; some of his stories are wild (Frank Sinatra inviting him to a 77th birthday party in Vegas after seeing the Five Heartbeats), others more poignant (having Sidney Poitier as his career mentor); presumably, the threads will eventually be part of another comedy special. Townsend doesn’t act as much as he used to. But when he appeared in the pulp comic TV series Black Lightning, fans couldn’t help but recall his early directing and starring work in Meteor Man. Most of all, he’s been busy directing TV series like Netflix’s upcoming scam drama Kaleidoscope and Peacocks’ reboot of the ensemble rom-com The Best Man.

Hollywood has come a long way since Townsend’s directorial debut. Some stereotypes have disappeared, while others have evolved. For all the biting satire of the Hollywood Shuffles, you wonder: Has the industry really learned its lesson? I’ve had people from the Indian community, from the Mexican community, you know that’s our story too, man, Townsend said. There was even a cat that was Italian that went, For me its mobsters. It was a source of inspiration.

Did it make a difference? I think so. You can’t put it on paper and say that because of the Hollywood Shuffle, those things have changed. But I think because Hollywood Shuffle exists, these things are always in conversation.




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