Revisiting Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle

Currently ( Summer of 2015) the Brooklyn Academy of Music began showcasing some  of the best 1980’s independent films. The program was launched with Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle. I saw this film in 1987 when it was first released in theaters in America.  It took me back to the jheri curl era in which black men and women exchanged the tight curliness of their natural hair for a loose curl that was maintained with “activator.” What I remember most about the curl is that the hair of those who wore it was constantly dripping with activator. The film depicts cultural practices of blacks during that time period. The film, however, is a satire that seeks to expose the behavior of Hollywood directors who continue to perpetuate black stereotypes in both television and film, although with our tacit approval.  In the film black actors desperately want success in the entertainment industry, yet the only roles that are allowed are those of black criminals, black hoodlums, jive talking blacks, and gangsters, etc. The main character, Bobby Taylor, is an aspiring actor who disdains working at a fast food restaurant, and does not want to settle for a job at the post office even though the work is honest.  He auditions for a part in a movie in which he is a black jive talking hoodlum who is prone to violence.

The film, Hollywood Shuffle, satirizes a school where blacks can learn to “act black.”

Throughout Hollywood Shuffle, the casting directors have Taylor and other black or Hispanic men audition using racial stereotypes of the aforementioned races. Many of the aspiring actors comply with the directors’ demands, albeit unhappily. Bobby’s younger brother idolizes him throughout the entire film, and wants to be just like him.  Both Taylor’s mother and grandmother support his aspirations, although they are not content with the type of stereotypical roles that he is portraying. Through much soul-searching and through a conversation he has with someone, he realizes that honest work is better than selling one’s soul to achieve fame and stardom. This makes his family as well as his girlfriend immensely proud. This film was made more than thirty years ago, although released years later.  At the end of the film, Taylor is featured in commercials while working at the US Postal Service.  The moral of the film is that one must be true to one’s self. The question to pose is what, if anything, has changed during the last thirty years within Hollywood? Are dark-skinned blacks still getting gangster and thug roles? Are they still getting roles as slaves? Are blacks still depicted as uneducated and inarticulate? Let’s examine some of the recent films of the last decade to make both a fair and honest assessment of the changes, if any, that have been made.

Many films, in which blacks have been cast, that recently have garnered accolades have been movies directed, written, and produced mostly by blacks. There are some exceptions.  Last year Twelve Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, won the Oscar for best picture.  It featured blacks as enslaved people and whites as slave owners.  Brad Pitt was the executive director. Similarly, The Butler, (directed by Lee Daniels) a period drama, starred Forrest Whitaker in a film about the heroic steps that a butler takes when working as a butler at the White House.  It was a film about a journey one man takes to reconcile his desire to be compliant with his job’s demands while not allowing others to take advantage of himself. It featured black actors in the primary roles.  Additionally, at the end of 2014, we saw the release of Selma, a civil rights drama that chronicled the historical events of the march in Selma, Alabama. It primarily featured blacks in the major roles. The blacks featured were both educated and articulate in the film. Ava Duvernay, a black woman, was the director. There have been a series of “Best Man Movies” and The Black Nativity film. Jamie Foxx starred in Django Unchained, a western set two years prior to the Civil War.  It is about a former enslaved man who is freed so that he could assist a bounty hunter. It was directed by Quentin Tarantino; Furthermore, Will Smith has starred in a series of films over several decades.  He and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, however are among the coproducers of many of these films. Viola Davis and Kerry Washington have succeeded in television and in film; however, the shows in which they star are produced by Shonda Rhimes, a black writer, producer, and director. Then there is Blackish (cocreated by Kenya Barris) and Empire cowritten by Lee Daniels), both successful shows featuring blacks. Both Morgan Freeman and Denzel Washington  in the last decade have played many roles that have not been stereotypical and that have been neither directed nor produced by blacks. Washington’s films include the The Book of Eli, and The Great Debaters. Chris Rock recently directed his last film, Top Five. Morgan Freemen recently starred in 5 Flights up, a film about an older interracial couple reflecting on their life together. It appears that seasoned actors are better able to command the major roles that are directed or produced by whites.

Dr. Henry Louis Gates in 2004 starred in a PBS documentary series entitled America Behind the Color Line. It featured, among other topics, the difficulty that black actors have in receiving major roles in Hollywood. If the actor is not an “A List” actor and is not the right complexion, then it is hard for him to obtain major roles.  The texture of one’s hair is also an issue. Although the roles that blacks get are not as stereotypical as they once were, getting those roles still remains difficult. Gates interviewed Chris Tucker and Morgan Freeman. Tucker specifically talked about the difficulty blacks have in getting major roles. If whites are not able to relate to our films, then we are not likely to receive those roles.  Since we are in the minority, it is financially inconsequential if we do not receive those roles.

Thus, it appears that blacks have stopped to a large degree taking demeaning roles. Yes, we still take roles depicting slavery, but not in a pejorative way.  It also appears that we have empowered ourselves by producing and writing films that depict us in a positive light.  Green-lighting our own films is still expensive.  It also appears that we are supporting each other more within the entertainment industry than we have previously done. Overall, progress has been made.  We had to get to a position and to a point in life in which esteeming our worth was more important than accepting those stereotypical roles in order to advance in the entertainment industry. Complexion, still matters, especially if one is female.  The lighter one is, the more likely one is to be cast. We could and still cannot wait for others to do what we can do ourselves.

If you have never seen this film, it is a must see.  If you have, see it again. You will laugh and reflect on the issues that are presented. I leave with you the words of Polonious in Hamlet, ” This above all: to thine own self be true, / And it must follow, as the /night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man./ Farewell. My blessing season this in thee.”

2 thoughts on “Revisiting Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle

  1. Sidney Poitier remains high on my list, and not for his skin color, but for his talent. Maybe we will eventually see talent and not race for parts. I notice a trend developing in Shakespeare plays with this choice. Jude Law and Campbell Scott’s Hamlets played opposite talented non-white Ophelias. And Orlando Bloom’s Romeo version also featured a non-white Juliet. Talent will eventually supersede the color barrier.

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    • You are absolutely right. After reading “Between the World and Me,” I am challenged to look at people for who they are! I will work daily to remove color as identification. I know it will not be easy, but I’m willing to try to spend my life working on it! In time, other aspects of American society will do the same.

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