Director: Robert Townsend
Cast: Robert Townsend, Annie-Marie Johnson, Helen Martin, Craigus R. Johnson
Watch Hollywood Shuffle online in the UK: Netflix UK / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Now a staggering 30 years old, Robert Townsend’s 1987 satirical comedy about the restricted characterisations Hollywood affords to African-Americans is still as incisively funny but depressingly relevant in 2017.
Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, a wannabe actor who’s auditioning for a potentially star-making role in a blaxploitation film called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. Yet he’s tired of being typecast in the racially stereotypical roles of the pimp, street-hood and slave. Bobby soon becomes conflicted between his dreams of making it as a successful actor and his desire to break free of the demeaning, harmful representations given to his race on screen.
Although Bobby eventually gets the part, he worries that his younger brother, Stevie (Craigus R. Johnson), will grow up accepting that black people cannot transcend the limited roles they’re given by Hollywood. Grappling with this moral dilemma, Bobby envisages several fantasies that critique and challenge the representation of race in film. These daydreamed sketches are interspersed throughout the film with varying success. A vision of a Black Acting School is a scathingly hilarious highlight, as one graduate nonchalantly lists his credits after leaving the school – “I’ve played nine crooks, four gang leaders, two dope dealers. I played a rapist twice. That was fun.” A Barry Norman-style review show is given a hilariously biting twist, as two African-Americans offer their unfiltered opinions on the latest movies. However, several of the parodies fall flat. A film-noir segment featuring a black detective delivers a whole three-act narrative in a tiresomely overlong sketch. And a sequence involving Eddie Murphy impersonations is particularly unfunny and outdated.
In addition to criticising the racial stereotyping of Hollywood, the film also shines a light on the racism concurrent behind the camera, as white casting directors request Bobby to “be more black”. Unfortunately, while the film breaks down racial stereotypes, the 80s film perpetrates other damaging gender and homosexual representations.
Hollywood Shuffle also suffers from uneven pacing and some rather patchy storytelling, but the film’s sheer enthusiasm and imagination helps paper over these cracks. Townsend, who also co-writes and produces this passion project, deserves plaudits for what he achieves with a shoestring budget of just $100,000. He’s also fantastically engaging in the lead role and it’s no surprise that the film propelled his career as an actor/director. In recent times, films such as Moonlight have offered unique and uncharted representations of race. But the fact that Shuffle’s satirical humour still feels subversive today confirms the reality that there’s still a disappointing lack of substantial roles for black actors in Hollywood.
Hollywood Shuffle is available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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