The 1980s were a tough time for a lot of up and coming black actors. With the passing of the 1970s, so too did the blaxploitation movement pass -- movies that featured all black casts and often told stories that filtered Hollywood genres through the African-American experience (though, to be fair, those blaxploitation films were not viewed as having the same legitimacy as they do today). Unless they were working on an A-list film -- often still predominantly white -- black actors were relegated to playing hoods and hookers. It was this tendency that inspired two young actor comedians, Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans, to write 1987's Hollywood Shuffle, which confronts the problem head on and does it in a funny, poignant, slightly angry way. It's terrific.
Townsend plays Bobby Taylor, a young fast food worker who dreams of becoming an actor. As the film opens, he's going on an audition for the character of "Jimmy" in a trashy, racist movie requiring him to shuck and jive and play yet another damaging stereotype. Though his co-workers (including co-writer Wayans) tell him to forget his dreams and his grandmother (Helen Martin) tells him such roles are beneath him, Bobby just wants to act. Most of the remaining film is played out via sketches and dream sequences in which Bobby imagines himself in other movies and genres, waiting to hear back as to whether or not he got a part he's not even sure he wants to play.
Streets of Fire), Townsend was not getting the kinds of roles he wanted and decided to do something about it. He reportedly financed $60,000 of Hollywood Shuffle's $100,000 budget on his own credit cards, gathered his own repertory company (including Anne-Marie Johnson, John Witherspoon and Wayans) and made one of the most successful independent comedies of the decade. It's a comedy that's very funny and with a very specific point of view about Hollywood and the culture of the period. It's a hugely successful independent movie from a black filmmaker made during a time when there weren't enough of those (which is precisely the argument that Hollywood Shuffle). If it's not mentioned in the same sentences as Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song and She's Gotta Have It, it needs to be.
Hollywood Shuffle also predicts what Keenen Ivory Wayans would be doing just a few years later on In Living Color, as many of the movie's standalone sequences could easily be transplanted onto the FOX sketch show. A film noir parody in which Wayans plays a jheri curled crime boss is a cross between "Head Detective" and Wayans' Rick James impression. One of Shuffle's standout bits, "Sneaking Into Movies," would basically be broken up into "Men on Film" and "The Homeboy Shopping Network," two of In Living Color's more popular recurring sketches.
After all, there's always work at the post office.
Blu-ray release date: April 28, 2015
DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio (English)