Living In Color
It is cosmic coincidence that Hollywood Shuffle should be re-issued on home video at the time Baltimore eats itself alive. At first glance, Robert Townsend's game-changing 1987 comedy* is an amusing precursor to fantasy-infused TV comedies like HBO's Dream On and the break-through African-American skit show In Living Color (co-created by Shuffle's co-writer, Keenan Ivory Wayans). But Townsend used parodies of the era's biggest pop-landscape mile markers (bland family sitcoms, movie-review shows, and macho blockbusters) to share a damning portrayal of blacks in popular media--and the disparate opinions within that community regarding their portrayal. Nearly three decades on, the comedy still works and the message still resonates. Hollywood Shuffle is UHF with a social conscience.
I was ten when my parents rented the movie; a few months later, they let me read Mad Magazine for the first time. These two events were key to my understanding of the second-punch power of jokes. Robert Townsend and Bill Gaines ground sacred cows into Big Macs and taught me the hilarious duality of the word "institutions". In truth, I didn't even see Hollywood Shuffle all the way through on that first viewing: my folks made me leave the room when my laughter surpassed all reason. I finished the tape the next morning, alone, just before dawn.
In the film, Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, a struggling young actor obsessed with landing the lead in a modern-day blaxploitation film called Jive Time Jimmy's Revenge. In the audition room, he finds a sea of cutthroat competition, where minorities degrade themselves for a trio of clueless, caustic white producers (Lisa Mende, Eugene Robert Glazer, and Dom Irrera). For every delusional gangbanger hoping to make it big playing themselves, there's a fame-craving Solomon Northup-type hiding his smarts, vocabulary, and dignity behind faux-street dialogue like, "I ain'ts be gots no weapon!" Taylor is troubled by the prospect of selling out for a big break, but he's more terrified of trying to build a life with his girlfriend (Anne-Marie Johnson) on a Winky Dinky Dog waiter's paycheck.
Taylor is a good actor, but a better dreamer. Hollywood Shuffle comes to life when we're allowed into his goofy fantasy world. One moment, he and a fellow theatre-hopper-turned-film-critic (Jimmy Woodard) star in Sneaking in the Movies--where they give "real" perspectives on mainstream entertainment, like Amadeus and Dirty Harry. In another sequence, Taylor hosts an infommercial for "Black Acting School", where white instructors teach eager young blacks the finer points of pimp-walking and jive-speak.
For the most part, Townsend and Wayans' satirical targets don't include staples of black popular culture, except as they intersect with white culture: in the sitcom parody There's a Bat in My House! a Caucasian family chases a bat who transforms into their wacky black roommate (Brad Sanders). This is key, as it illustrates a disconnect (some might say a blatant insensitivity) between the producers of mass media and consumers of that media who fall outside the target demographic. Absent relatability, Bobby Taylor not only inserts himself into the popular fiction of the day, he forces the narrative through the prism of his own experience and makes himself the hero.
Twenty-seven years later, we're still setting the table for a national conversation about race--a wobbly table whose place settings no one can agree on. It's a tough talk to have. In some circles, so-called "thuggish" behavior is accepted (even celebrated) as a natural reaction to four hundred years of systemic oppression. In others, that same behavior is something to be overcome in the interest of furthering wider acceptance of minority culture. Those who cross societal picket lines, as Bill Cosby did (long before recent allegations changed the conversation about him), are seen as establishment apologists or worse.
So what's the answer?
Townsend may have nailed it in his resolution to Hollywood Shuffle. Following a heartfelt discussion with an uncle (David McKnight) who had similar conflicts regarding showbiz, Bobby Taylor takes a stand against both the insidious draw of commercial success and the voices of oppression within his own community. The result gives him a sense of closure, a sense of pride, and a sense of control over his own destiny. It's also a bold reminder that we as individuals--regardless of race, gender, or circumstance--are the key to our own empowerment, and that external struggles are only as insurmountable as our determination is weak.
Hollywood Shuffle is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of Olive Films.
*His first of two that year: Eddie Murphy: Raw came out nine months later.