In the style of 'Kentucky Fried Movie', writer-director Robert Townsend lampoons Hollywood's perception of blacks--and racial stereotypes in general. In particular, the movies satirizes the stereotyping of African Americans in both film and television.
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by Dane Youssef
Movies in general are so formulaic that even most independent films are pretty routine and by-the-numbers.
Maybe that's why "Hollywood Shuffle" feels so refreshing, like a much-needed change of pace. Most indies are made almost entirely by hand---one man writing, directing, producing (hey, they need every single spare cent they can get their grubby hands on) and this one is no exception.
Townsend wears all the indie hats here… and he wears them proudly.
This is the film that introduced the world to Robert Townsend. Well, that was it's whole purpose. Like "The Brother McMullen," this star-vehicle was written and directed by Townsend about his dream to make it as a professional actor, trying to break into Hollywood, while at the same time, trying to over-come the cruel limitations mainstream Hollywood has set up for black people who want to act... and actors, in general.
Whereas the '70's was the birth decade of the blaxploitation, so many of them were just cheap, cheesy, corny knock-offs of popular white films. Blaxploitation got more blacks into films, but the films themselves weren't really about anything. "Hollywood Shuffle" is a Blaxploitation film that really has something to say... that has an agenda.
There is so much burning talent, so many struggling entertainers wanting to make something of themselves, that Hollywood can afford to treat the auditioning talent the same way a really strong cleanser treats germs.
Townsend's efforts to make this movie are inspiring--he borrowed every dollar he could, asked for movie footage that was left on the cutting-room floor, called in every favor he could, threw everything he had and more to get this one made.
To tell his story, get his foot in the door... and at the same time, tell a story about what this kind of life is like. For those with talent who dare to dream big.
Greats Keenan Ivory Wayans and John Witherspoon have bit players as people who work at a hog stand in the neighborhood who don't ask for much out of life... and don't get it. They're the kind of cynics who believe, "You're a fool for following your dreams."
When you near the end of your journey in this world, you really fully understand the meaning of the old phrase, "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."
Townsend interlocks a variety of skits with this all-too autobiographical tale, all of which are pretty funny and inspiring. You have to admire the way that Townsend wants to put out some legitimate roles for black actors to play and black actors to idolize. But most of his skits go on too long after the point has been made and there are quite a few moments that feel like someone (Townsend obviously) should have punched up. Townsend is a far better actor than he is a writer/director.
Perhaps because he is only a filmmaker by necessity for this one. He's more interested in using this to make up of all those dream roles he never got to play and showing his chops as an actor than really making a great movie.
There's a scene where he takes-off "Siskel & Ebert"--before everyone started doing it. Almost all the skits (where Townsend is fantasizing his dream roles as an actor) go on way too long, probably because Townsend is far less concerned with how funny the skits/movie is and more interested in using this movie to play all the dream roles he never got to before.
Every actor is perfectly cast, especially Townsend himself. It's great to see him playing all these roles you know he's always dreamed of doing (he plays them while his character actually IS day-dreaming).
The movie captures the struggle of the out-of-work actor just right. We see lines and lines of actors warming-up, rehearsing their roles, going into the audition... all to hear, "Thank you, next!" But some blessed, precious few are picked.
But those that are black are given racially-biased drivel to perform. Ethnic caricatures that shame and set back their race. Brothers and sisters who talk like stock characters from the slave era, wearing redneck farm clothes, picking cotton, eating chicken and getting stinking drunk. Townsend tirades many black archetypes, most of which went out of style around the same time as black-face. Lil' Bobby obviously wants to say something about the way the brothers and sisters are treated in the biz. There are some moments here you'll roar with laughter at, as well as put a lump in your throat and a strange feeling of hope and pride.
Like many other breakthrough films, especially independents, "Hollywood Shuffle" was another arrival of a fresh new talent. It happens as often as the rise and setting of the suns, but here is a film where it feels a little more special… because Townsend was really about something. You can see it here, not only in some of his satirist scenes, but some of the quieter moments where real drama in brewing and dreams are at stake.
We see where Townsend is asking himself if he's good enough, if he face the whole world (which is how it is when you're struggling to make it as an entertainer… or in life) and when life-long happiness is at stake. It almost hurts. And at the end of it all, when we wonder for Townsend's character, Bobby's sake… what will become of him? And then we realize we already know. We just found out.
It's like looking in the sky at the stars like you always do… and then there's a brand-new star shining in the night sky, standing out just a little bit bigger than the others. Haven't seen that one before. Hey, is that a new one? Couldn't be, could it? I don't remember… there are so many. Another star is born.
--For EVERY Star Waiting To Be Born, Dane Youssef