Both Robert Townsend and his classic first film, 1987's Hollywood Shuffle, are underrated comedic gems.
The satirical movie, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary today, illuminated in hilarious fashion the struggles black actors have in getting work in the film industry outside of stereotypical roles as pimps, prostitutes, drug dealers and criminals. It gave voice to what black audiences had been saying for years: that the same black actors are recycled and there aren't enough meaty roles for black actors.
When it comes to outrageous skits, like movie critics Speed and Tyrone in Sneaking in the Movies or the Black Acting School, along with having some of the most memorable and quotable lines, Hollywood Shuffle is one of the most riotously important pieces of commentary that we’ve been gifted with in cinematic history.
If you cannot quote the following lines verbatim, there is something seriously wrong with your late '80s cultural competencies:
"I believe this movie. A dude could jump off a mountain and not hurt himself, 'cause he did brace himself, and knew something about the levels of gravitivity and polarity."
"Winky Dinky Dog - isn't that beautiful? C'mon, say it with me: Winky... Dinky... DOG! The Winky Dinky Ho Cake... hoes gotta eat too."
"Make my day? Do fifty bullets in yo' ass make yo' day? We give "Dirty Larry" the finger!"
"Don't say "drugs" around the man. And don't say "coke" or "freebase" neither. Unless you got some."
"Batty-Batty-Batty! Wings don't fail me now!"
"Whah's all dis noise? Can't a Black Bat from Detroit get some sleep around here?"
"Well I've played nine crooks, four gang leaders, two dope dealers. I played a rapist twice. That was fun. Currently I'm filming a prison movie. I play this tough con that tries to f*** this new inmate."
Hollywood Shuffle was written and directed by Townsend and co-written by Keenan Ivory Wayans. Wayans had left Tuskegee University on an engineering scholarship to pursue comedy and met Townsend at the Improv in New York.
Soon after the success of Hollywood Shuffle, Wayans was able to write I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, a parody of blaxploitation films, and later Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood, a farcical and uproarious take of ‘90s hood films.
Damon Wayans has a cameo in Hollywood Shuffle as a security guard for the actor in Batty Batty Batty who comes to Bobby Taylor's job at Winky Dinky Dog. John Witherspoon plays his boss. And Paul Mooney has a cameo as a member of the NAACP protesting Bobby Taylor's stereotypical roles.
Before Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend had lived the real life struggle, which inspired him to write the film. He had a cameo in the cult classic Cooley High on the basketball court with the characters Stone and Robert and bit roles in movies including A Soldier's Story before he had huge success with Hollywood Shuffle.
With a $100,000 budget, 60K of which was financed from Townsend's credit cards, Hollywood Shuffle grossed over $5 million in 10 months.
When art imitates real life, Townsend auditioned for Saturday Night Live in the early 1980’s, but the show chose to go with another black actor named Eddie Murphy. In Hollywood Shuffle, judges for auditions want black actors to be "more black" and ask for someone who can be more like "Eddie Murphy."
Murphy dominated the early 1980's film scene with movies like 48 Hours, Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop I and II. Townsend would end up later working with Eddie as the director of his landmark stand-up comedy film, Raw.
Townsend's debut film was as prescient as it was funny. More than a decade after Hollywood Shuffle’s release,, box office draws like Halle Berry and Denzel Washington were only able to win Oscars for stereotypical roles. Washington won for playing a rogue cop in Training Day (You shot me in the ass!) and Halle Berry became the first black actress to win for a leading role after begging Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball to make her feel good.
Then there was the hashtag #oscarssowhite, and let’s not forget a racist societal backlash due to actors playing roles that have previously gone to white actors, like the movie Annie with young actress Quvenzhane Wallis playing the title role, or even the mere suggestion that Idris Elba would make a fantastic James Bond.
On the 30th anniversary of Hollywood Shuffle, we are entering a phase that we will likely look at as a golden age of black cinema and television, with a more diverse array of roles for black actors with the help of directors like Denzel Washington and Moonlight's director Barry Jenkins.
But we can't ever forget Robert Townsend, who blazed a hilariously truthful trail for the critique of Hollywood with Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge, Attack of the Street Pimps, and Rambro's First Young Blood in Hollywood Shuffle.