Movie: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)
|Men on film|
Why Did I watch this?
This was added to my Netflix queue on January 11th, 2010. I forget what got it on my radar. It was maybe an interest in old Wayans brothers comedies (although this is really the Robert Townsend show), and a notable but somewhat forgotten bit of 80s Black Hollywood satire. The premise always sounded really interesting to me but I never pressed play. UNTIL TODAY.
What Did I know ahead of time?
I knew the just of it, that it was a satire of black actors in Hollywood and their expectations in particular acting roles. I had some idea that it was kind of a sketch movie, I think I honestly had a little Kentucky Fried Movie (1977) in my head, but I know it has nothing to do with that. I felt pretty confident in the humor and was prepared to dive in.
How Was It?
This is pretty good! I was left wondering why Robert Townsend didn't end up being a bigger voice in black comedy, I hate to say, was it because of the reasons laid out in this film? That he wasn't an "Eddie Murphy type" and wouldn't play gangsters and drug addicts? Or was it just Meteor Man (1993)? I should add Meteor Man next year, I have such a distinct memory of that ad in a comic book I owned. I did not watch it. I DID just see him in The Mighty Quinn (1989), which I totally forgot about. Probably because he plays a very sincere Jamaican.
Anyway, THIS film is about Bobby Taylor, played by Townsend, an actor trying desperately to break into Hollywood, even though the role he's up for is let's say, one of questionable African American stereotypes. This is the basic throughline of the film, but we get diversions both through his own fantasies and through fake TV shows and movies that further the film's satirical point.
We don't really see a lot of great sketch films created this way. It worked really well. It all had one driving focus and is able to freely spin from there. It fires on all cylinders structurally and many of the jokes land. We are maybe slightly better than we were representation-wise from 1987, but a lot of this still holds true.
There's this sense in the film, and I always got this from Chappelle Show-style comedy, of a presumption of maligned resources in the black community. Their versions are always the cheaper, shoddier versions than what the whites get and Townsend / Chappelle both accept this but are also slyly indignant. There's hardly a question that what they're being handed is wrong and the movie takes a while for Bobby to realize that he should stand for his ethics instead of taking stereotypical work because work is work.
And this gets into a bigger issue. Is it fair to just have representation at all? Or does it matter that it's the right kind of representation? Characters here argue that they're still getting to appear in films, still getting paid, and still furthering their career, but it's all through really problematic roles that don't illustrate a fully fleshed out experience of Black life in America. It's clear what side the film is on, and we do continue to get this today in a wide variety of underrepresented groups.
It's intriguing that the film ends without anyone learning any kind of lesson, Hollywood not changing, and people pretty eager to step in when Bobby eventually steps out. It's all sorts of hypocrisy, but do they really have a choice when they don't have another choice for a career? The option here is clearly what we've almost sort of gotten to - black voices telling black stories from a black perspective, which can neatly avoid both the Uncle Tom scenarios and the Black Sambo scenarios. We've really screwed up just about everything with white representation of black people, haven't we?
Now, speaking of Chappelle, there is a bit of focus only on the Black Experience, and apparently there's even some critical reevaluation that says that Townsend does to the gay and trans community in this film what the rest of Hollywood is doing to Black Folk. I can see that, but I don't think it's really egregious enough to take me out of the movie, but then again, I am not one of those people so what do I know. There is a casual f-word, which is a nice little reminder that yes, this is 1987.
And Paul Mooney shows up! Sorry, MR. Paul Mooney, as the credits state. It's fun to see him in a big movie, even if it's really just a few lines. Keenan Ivory and Damon Wayans, John Witherspoon, and Dom Irrera are the big names here, but there is a substantial cast of people doing great bit roles. The only thing I'd really want to see is to lean even harder into the sketch troupe idea and see the same actors again and again in different scenarios.
I liked this, and most important, it was very short, a solid 81 minutes, in and out, no waiting for jokes to get stale. It makes its point pretty fast (really within the first few seconds) and the rest is free to riff and develop characters, which is actually pretty solid.