Writer/director/actor Robert Townsend has played a solider, a superhero, an every man, and even himself. He’s made a point to create and tell stories that are not just specific to him and his worldview, but to the Black community, as well. You can see this most clearly in his directorial debut, Hollywood Shuffle (1987), co-written with Keenen Ivory Wayans (Scary Movie/In Living Color), a comedic satire of what it’s like as a Black actor in Hollywood and, more specifically, to be Black in America. Some 40 years later, Townsend’s debut feature is also his first to be released via The Criterion Collection, replete with a 4K digital restoration, brand new audio commentary from Townsend, interviews with three members of The Hollywood Shuffle Players troupe, and an extended interview with Townsend.
Aspiring actor Bobby Taylor (Townsend) is eager for his big break in Hollywood, feeling like his next audition will be what breaks him through the crowd and into the limelight. Through a series of fantastical vignettes, Bobby imagines life in a variety of scenarios as he grapples with trying to accomplish his dream and what the upcoming role of a gang leader might do to hurt the community at large.
Remasters/re-releases like Hollywood Shuffle are excellent at helping audiences consider their viewpoints from a then/now perspective. As a kid, I didn’t understand racial discord. I don’t know if this is because I grew up with cable television so films like Townsend’s The Meteor Man (1993), Wayans’s I’m Gonna Get You Sucka (1988) and A Low Down Dirty Shame (1994), or anything Eddie Murphy put out were things that were not only normal to me, they were things I sought out. In expanding my ideas of cinema, pushing past my private bubble, the reality of what these creatives faced is far from glory. These actors, their predecessors, and those that followed were locked into boxes, categories created by showrunners, writers, directors, and producers, based solely on what “public opinion” believed. So while there were plenty of white and white-passing heroes and heroines, the roles for Black actors were limited to criminals of all stripes — muggers, drug users, rapists, thugs, gang members, and more. It was only when someone figured out how to package Black stories that they became accessible to “wider audiences” and therefore, with financial gains to pave the way, created a path for the illusion of equity. Townsend and Wayans’s Hollywood Shuffle uses humor to poke and prod a system that still struggles to recognize the talents of the Black community (see: the 2023 Oscar nominations and nary a mention of Danielle Deadwyler for her performance in Till (2022) or Delroy Lindo in 2020 for his performance in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods. Hell, that whole film got shutout for no explicable reason.) Without using a single stereotype in the main storyline, Townsend and Wayans establish that Bobby comes from a put-together, supportive family, is in a loving relationship, and is about as average a citizen as it gets. It’s only in rehearsing for the part of Jimmy in an upcoming gang-related film that Bobby shifts his tone and affectation, his physicality, to match what that era expected from a certain type of Black character. This is where the film is the meatiest, not the rehearsal, but in how it sets up the way in which entertainment by Black actors is manipulated or manufactured by the white establishment to project the same type of Black characters over and again. There’s no nuance here, there’s just stereotype and presumption. Through Bobby, the various supporting characters, and Bobby’s dreamlike visualizations, the audience gets taken on a parallel investigation of the truth of people versus the version sold by entertainers.
The visualizations themselves are tame, yet they lack no less of a punch. In one, Bobby transforms into a freed slave among many but who doesn’t want to go. Especially when there’s a portion of it where the wife of the slave master runs off with Grand L. Bush’s (Die Hard) Mandingo (an obvious send-up to The Birth of a Nation (1915)), the sequence speaks to how so many Black actors are limited to playing roles that speak to the trauma of the American Black community, rather than showing them as heroes (super or regular), average citizens, or something in between. In case you didn’t realize that this is the point, the sequence gets its own fourth wall break as Bobby switches from playing a slave to an instructor at a Black Acting School, the period scene-work actually being the beginning of a commercial. What makes the scene funny isn’t just listening to Bush’s character breakdown the various violent offenders he’s played since graduating from Black Acting School, it’s that all the shown instructors are white and the students Black. There’s plenty of subtle humor throughout the film, but this isn’t one of them and it lands every time. This fantasy sequence and all the ones that follow offer Townsend and Wayans the ability to showcase the versatility of the cast, as well as dig into the targeted theme of the film without coming across as preachy via a series of elaborate speeches. Here, the comedy does all the talking and it bites.
The fascinating thing in looking backward on Shuffle is the sheer amount of talent on screen in several scene-stealing roles. Helen Martin as Bobby’s grandmother is the most obvious as the actor has worked in everything from Death Wish (1974) to Roots (1977) to Sanford and Son (1976-1977), Good Times (1974-1979), and (where I met her) 227 (1985-1990). There’s Anne-Marie Johnson as Bobby’s girlfriend Lydia, who’s been steadily working from 23 episodes of In Living Color to guest stints on programs like JAG (1997-2002), Leverage (2008-2012), Bones (2005-2017), and Castle (2009 – 2016). There’s Bush, who played roles in the first two Lethal Weapon (1987 and 1989) films, Street of Fire (1984), and License to Kill (1989). Then there’s Rusty Cundieff who, before working on Chapelle’s Show (2003-2006), would write and direct Tales from the Hood (1995). Big parts and little parts all throughout Shuffle are actors whom audiences now recognize from one standout role (if not several), grateful to have seen them on screen at all. Yet, when one considers the message within Shuffle, a message that’s far too resonant today, there’s a certain amount of shock and awe that the film was ever produced. Rather than stand by, Townsend and Wayans took as much control over their lives as possible, creating work for their friends and with allies who understood the cause. In this case, that meant creating a story that dares the audience to consider the very nature of entertainment and the ways it manipulates audiences to believe that things are the way the stories suggest. And, yet, the general populace remains lost, even now, amid the argument that only certain people should play certain roles (remember the uproar over Zendaya playing MJ Watson in Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) or Halle Bailey playing Ariel in the new live-action The Little Mermaid (2023)?)
With this being a restoration, let’s talk about the transfer and the bonus features.
According to the press notes, an original 35 mm camera negative was scanned and used to create a 4K resolution digital transfer, supervised and approved by Townsend. The audio was similarly remastered from the 35 mm DME magnetic track to create a sound more appropriate for modern home theaters. Be advised that Criterion is only currently offering Shuffle on Blu-ray, so the 4K restoration is not a 4K UHD restoration. That said, there’s minimal visible grain, the colors have a natural balance, and, outside of the very period aspects of the film, there’s little in the look and sound of the film that implies its age. Especially considering the frustrating remaining applicability of the issues within the film, the presentation comes across as timeless, for good or for bad.
Regarding the bonus materials, there are three on-disc materials and a theatrical trailer. The first is a feature-length commentary track from Townsend that was recorded in 2022. There’s no indication as to whether this was created for Criterion specifically, but one can presume that as Shuffle was announced as joining Criterion in November of 2022. There is also a fascinating 24 minute brand-new interview with Cundieff, Johnson, and Bobby McGee (The Meteor Man) in which they discuss the significance of their participation at the time of shooting, as well as a variety of behind-the-scenes stories. Their stories really convey the sense of comradery on set, as well as how this film could’ve fallen apart at really any time due to Townsend financing so much of it himself. To hear from the co-writer/actor/director himself, you can either watch the film with the feature-length commentary or enjoy a 27-minute conversation between Townsend and film critic Elvis Mitchell on an October 22nd, 2022, episode of Mitchell’s radio program The Treatment. Be advised that this featurette is entirely audio with the only visual accompaniment being a stylish photo of Townsend. Though these featurettes are light, there’s quite a bit of information within them that enhance the overall viewing experience. Also, as with every Criterion release, there is an essay on the film in the liner notes, this time from critic Aisha Harris.
If you’re familiar with Spike Lee’s Bamboozled (2000), a darkly comedic satire about the entertainment industry as well, Hollywood Shuffle is just as evocative though it doesn’t hit as hard nor as bluntly. I doubt anyone would accuse Wayans of subtlety, but Townsend’s influence grounds the work so that the comedy isn’t reaching for absurdity, it merely achieves it and allows the audience time to process before moving on. In a brisk 81 minutes, Townsend takes the audience through a journey of self-realization that dreams can be made through hard work and effort without having to sell your soul or become another cog in the Hollywood machine. It’s fitting that Shuffle may find a new audience now so soon after Damien Chazelle’s Babylon (2022) evaporated in theaters as it, too, with far more overtness, lambasted Hollywood for the boxes it puts people in before wringing them out for everything they contain before moving on. But where Babylon ends in darkness, Shuffle implies that there can be light. We just have to be willing to forge a different path.
Hollywood Shuffle Special Features:
- New, restored 4K digital transfer, approved by writer-director-actor Robert Townsend, with uncompressed monaural soundtrack
- New audio commentary featuring Townsend
- New interviews with actors Rusty Cundieff, Anne-Marie Johnson, and Bobby McGee (24:12)
- Radio program featuring Townsend in conversation with film critic Elvis Mitchell (27:02)
- Trailer (1:52)
- English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Aisha Harris
- New cover by Rachelle Baker
Available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection February 28th, 2023.