How Robert Townsend changed the game with the 1987 self-financed comedy Hollywood Shuffle
How scarce were the opportunities for black filmmakers when Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans came up with the idea of ” Hollywood shuffle Mid 1980s? Townsend, who at the time had a solid acting career and was planning to direct and co-star MixShe didn’t even think of introducing it to the big studios of the film industry.
“There weren’t any movies by black filmmakers back then,” Townsend, 66, tells us today as his favorite 1987 comedy is enhanced new Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. “There was a drought… The idea of [a Black filmmaker] Making a film was no longer in the ether. It wasn’t in the air.”
While the 1970s saw seminal film star Sidney Poitier stepping behind the camera, the blaxploitation movement spawned the likes of Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss song) and Gordon Parks (Wave) and UCLA graduate Charles Burnett (Sheep killers) that spurred the LA Rebellion, the ’80s were at least two steps backwards for black directors.
Acting opportunities were also not plentiful. While Townsend felt he had made a major breakthrough, he landed a role in Norman Jewison’s 1984 World War II drama. A Soldier’s Story starring Denzel Washington, it hardly guaranteed future work. “The film changed my life,” he says. “We get nominated for three Academy Awards. I tell my agent, ‘I want to do more films like this.’ My agent says, ‘Robert, they only do one Black film a year. You managed. Be happy.’ And then the filmmaker was born.”
Townsend and Wayans, best friends from when they performed at The Improv in New York in the late ’70s Hollywood shuffle, a scathing, ahead-of-the-time satire of what it was like to be black in the film business in the 1980s. “We audition for all these bad roles, you know, crooks, pimps, runaway slaves and basketball illiterates,” says Townsend.
Hollywood shuffle would play Townsend as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor who longs to quit his minimum wage day job at a hot dog stand. Bobby finally gets a big role – but has to come to terms with the fact that it’s a cartoonishly stereotypical project called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge where his character’s dialogue consists of lines like “I ain’t be got no Weapon!”.
Determined to direct but knowing Hollywood would never fund it, Townsend financed the film himself. “I was withdrawing my life savings at the time—$60,000 from the bank,” he says. He maxed out credit cards and borrowed more from friends to cover the remainder of the film’s $100,000 cost, which he memorably used as a plea the trailer of the movie.
Then the real work began. “Hollywood shuffle was like my film school,” says Townsend, who still directs and is a tenured professor in the University of Southern California’s top-flight film program. “I was the co-writer. I was the star of the film. I was the director. I was the main producer, the main financial person. I drove the camera car. I worked in the handyman service [catering]. I cleaned up after everyone left. So I learned every discipline in the filmmaking process.”
The film took 12 days to shoot – but 2 1/2 years to edit, largely because Townsend kept running out of money. Once he had a finished print, Townsend showed it to Samuel Goldwyn Jr. (the son of legendary film mogul Samuel Goldwyn), who bought it to distribute for the company that shared his name. Townsend immediately asked for the check. “I said, ‘I put the film on credit cards and the bills are due,'” recalls Townsend. “But I said, ‘I don’t want people to know [that] because they will think that the film is cheap.’ And he says, ‘No, no, no, no, no. That’s the story. We should tell everyone you worked so hard and figured it out.’ And that became the hook of the film.”
Released March 20, 1987, Hollywood shuffle garnered mostly positive reviews from critics — including Siskel and Ebertthe beloved, bickering cinematic umpires who are also spoofed in one of Hollywood shuffle‘s famous vignettes. They compared Townsend to Spike Lee, who had emerged from Brooklyn a year earlier with his critical Darling debut She must have it.
The film also grossed over $5 million at the box office, a damn return on Townsend’s investment in himself.
“I was on the covers of magazines on talk tv every night,” he says. “I have traveled the world. I went to France and England and Germany and Norway. A small film shot with a credit card took me around the world a couple of times. It changed my life forever to this day.”
And Townsend helped change the face of Hollywood with an enduring comedy classic that cheered Hollywood for its underrepresentation of black people on screen. Though it would take decades of gradual progress and a recent breed reckoning to see any real turnaround and some fruits of his labor.
“I think a lot has changed,” says Townsend, who went on to act in and direct films The five heartbeats (1991) and Meteor Man (1993) and now works mainly in television (The Last OG, The Wonder Years, The Best Man: The Final Chapters). “I mean, we’re miles away from where we were in 1982, 1983. There are people of color in leading roles, showrunners, writers, directors, producers, casting [directors]Management.
“We are not fully realized. It’s not like, “Everything is fine now! It is finished! The civil rights movement is dead!’ I think there is still a lot to do. But I think we’re better than we were.”
Hollywood shuffle: The Criterion Collection is now available on Amazon.
https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/hollywood-shuffle-robert-townsend-interview-anniversary-criterion-collection-230455280.html How Robert Townsend changed the game with the 1987 self-financed comedy Hollywood Shuffle