Friday, February 8, 2008

Hollywood Shuffle

Directed by Robert Townsend
Written by Robert Townsend and Keenan Ivory Wayans
Starring Robert Townsend, Cragus R. Johnson, Keenan Ivory Wayans
IMDB Entry
Watch the full movie at

The biggest story about Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle is the story of how it was made. Like Spike Lee, Kevin Smith, and Robert Rodriguez, he financed it himself, putting the cost on his credit cards, begging for film stock, and taking years to to film it, grabbing scenes in bits and pieces as needed.

It shows. The movie is a bit rough and disjointed, but that adds to its charm.

Townsend stars as Bobby Taylor, and young actor trying to break into Hollywood. But there's a problem: he's black, and he is constantly having to deal with the stereotypes. Roles he's up for are usually pimps or other embarrassing racial stereotypes. Meanwhile, Bobby dreams about how things might be for him. His biggest fear is that he will be forced to go back and work in the post office, as his family wants.

Townsend is charming, but the movie is primarily an attack on stereotypes. The script definitely goes over the top -- Roger Ebert pointed out that some of the stereotypes Townsend attacks hadn't been used in film in decades, and that most of the audience probably never saw them. There's also an unending parody of the Siskel and Ebert movie review show that starts out being unfunny and goes on forever in that vein. I noted that this bit includes Keenan Ivory Wayans, and I suspect this is part of the script he was responsible for, a precursor to the long, unfunny comedy of In Living Color.

But the film is redeemed by its ending. It works on so many levels, and is wonderful and delightful, saying that your dreams may come true in strange and unexpected ways. I'll put the ending in white print; highlight it with your cursor if you want to see it.

Bobby realizes the stereotypes he is forced to play are more and more demeaning and finally quits. He goes to work at the post office -- where he ends up starring in a series of advertisements for them.

It's wonderfully satisfying to see.

Unlike the other directors I mentioned, Townsend never seemed able to build on the success of the film. He worked regularly as a director, but only The Five Heartbeats was better than mediocre and most had a long way to go to reach mediocrity. I kept looking for Townsend to do it again, but, alas, it was not to happen.

But Hollywood Shuffle is a flawed but memorable film that should have launched much more.

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