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‘Hollywood Shuffle’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 21, 1987


Robert Townsend
Robert Townsend;
Anne-Marie Johnson;
Starletta Duupois
Under 17 restricted

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With black comedy, one often laughs just to keep from crying -- which shouldn't devalue either the humor or the pain, especially when it's black black comedy.

Witness Robert Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle," a film whose budget (or lack thereof) doesn't show nearly as much as its heart. Townsend, a young black comic and actor with only a few supporting roles on his resume', has taken an Icarus-like leap by producing, directing, cowriting and starring in his first feature film.

The good news is it flies -- and so does Townsend.

"Hollywood Shuffle" has a free-form structure that grew out of the film's origins. It's put together from short films Townsend made in 1984 and 1985, woven into one work last year. The story line is rooted in reality: the difficulties black actors and actresses face getting nonstereotyped roles in Hollywood, an equal opportunity exploiter.

The film's title refers to the demeaning process actors must go through to get roles. But rather than lashing out with unfocusedanger, Townsend illuminates the situation by exaggerating the industry's myopic views.

Townsend-the-actor plays Bobby Taylor, a young, frustrated performer who must work at a Winky-Dinky-Dog stand even as he daydreams of stardom. These fantasies (derided by his fellow workers) allow Townsend-the-director to tell his story in nonlinear fashion, though he always returns to the real world of Bobby Taylor.

Some of the caustic parodies ring truer than we might like to think. One, "There's a Bat in My House," is an oafish sitcom centered on the adventures of Batty Boy ("half bat, half soul brother, but together he adds up to big laughs"). Another is a long commercial for the "Acting School for Blacks," with classes in Jive Talk 101, TV Pimps and Epic Slaves, and mock excerpts from genre movies and television series. Along the way Townsend sends up just about every stupid racial and sexual stereotype imaginable.

One of the funniest parodies is a segment of "Sam Ace," a gumshoe takeoff that pokes fun at trendy black hair styles: the episode, "Death of a Breakdancer," was shot in 16mm black and white and blown up, giving it that grainy '40s quality. Even funnier is "Sneakin' in the Movies," in which loquacious "homeboys" Speed and Tyrone discuss the finer points of whatever movies they've been able to sneak into that week. They get in some digs at films with unpronounceable titles ("A man's gotta be able to tell his woman where he's gonna take her"), give thumbs down to "Amadeus" ("two mothas really into music") and deliver a "serious high five" for that future classic "Attack of the Street Pimps" (fake clips included).

As funny as these self-contained fantasies are, there's genuine pain coursing though Bobby's real-world adventures. His audition scenes are hilarious, but also brutally frank. Light-skinned black actors can't get cast as killers, hoods and pimps in television series or as slaves in historical series, the kinds of roles most available to blacks; training and talent are subsumed in roles that demand regress, not progress ("I can do it iambic!" says one actor of dunce lines intended for a murder scene).

When white producers say they're looking for an Eddie Murphy type, a battalion of clones shows up. A white director tells Townsend to act more black: "Stick your {rear end} out and bug the eyes." One apprehensive actor asks another about a particular role, producing this exchange:

"Does your character die?"


"Then it's a good script."

If Townsend puts the spotlight on Hollywood's shortcomings, he's just as harsh with actors who not only accept, but pursue, demeaning roles -- and who confuse selling out with buying in. (An NAACP official protests that "they'll never play the Rambos until they stop playing the Sambos." A little later, there's a Taylor fantasy called "Rambro-First Youngblood.")

Townsend/Taylor, who plays a half-dozen disparate roles inside and outside his fantasies, is quite wonderful, projecting not just a wealth of voices, accents and physical humor, but warmth and pathos as well. And he's surrounded by a fine ensemble. Some of the names and faces will be familiar (Franklin Ajaye, Helen Martin) but most won't. That's one of the side effects of "Hollywood Shuffle": It showcases some exciting new talent, including Jimmy Woodard, Anne-Marie Johnson and Lisa Mende.

The film has some clumsy scenes, and sometimes the director overcrowds his comedy. The remarkable thing, however, is that for a mere $100,000, Townsend and company have made a funny, poignant and technically proficient film -- one that should thoroughly embarrass those studios that routinely offer up badly made, multimillion-dollar disasters.

"Hollywood Shuffle" is rated R and contains some profanity.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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