HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE is the definition of a D.I.Y. movie. Comedian Robert Townsend got tired of fighting for the shitty roles that Hollywood had available to him as a black man, so he ran up his credit cards to produce and direct his own movie, casting himself as Bobby Taylor, an actor not quite yet tired of fighting for the shitty roles that Hollywood has available to him as a black man. But it’s also a sketch movie in kind of the way UHF was later. The main story tangents into parody TV shows and fantasy sequences and stuff where he gets to play different roles.
Bobby is auditioning for what seems at first like a bit part as a mugger or something, but I guess it’s supposed to be the title role in a movie called JIVE TIME JIMMY’S REVENGE. He earnestly practices his improperly ebonic dialogue with his little brother Stevie (Craigus R. Johnson), doing some kind of cartoonish pimp voice and strut that only get worse in front of the white casting directors, cast and filmmakers.
He just goes along with the bullshit like people in the real world do. He treats the #1 sitcom star – who wears a funny bat-shaped hat and mugs up a storm while being swatted at by white people – as a V.I.P. Even in a daydream about being personally boycotted by the NAACP for playing Jive Time Jimmy he’s asked if he makes “those faces” (minstrel show type mugging) in bed, and he answers innocently, “Uh, sometimes.” It works as satire because he doesn’t know any better.
It’s not just about the unfairness of the Hollywood machine. It’s about the temptation to give in. When they tell him they want “an Eddie Murphy type” he just tries to imitate Eddie Murphy for them, when they tell him to act “more black” he does what he thinks that means to them. As much as it’s attacking racial stereotypes in the media it’s shaming himself and his colleagues for taking part in them. He is sympathetic, obviously, showing why actors would be willing to take any role than can get (and how the star trying to put his foot down offends and inconveniences the black actors in the supporting roles). But ultimately, of course, Townsend comes down on the side of saying no to this type of work, even if it means getting a job at the post office instead.
Interesting trivia for you here: the character Batty Boy, who represents selling out to play a racially demeaning character, is played by Brad Sanders, who played Big Lob in GI JOE: THE MOVIE:
Man, I gotta say, There’s a Bat In My House! is perfect fictional TV programming. It doesn’t parody a specific show as far as I’m aware, but it perfectly captures the inanity of senselessly popular sitcom phenomenons. I don’t think the characters even know why they think it’s funny. They just like his catch phrase “Batty batty batty!” They’re too busy repeating that to wonder about the subtext of a show about a white family not wanting to have to live with a black thing. I’ll buy that for a dollar.
It takes Bobby a while to wise up. When he finally gets there Townsend lays it on a little too thick in my opinion. Did he really have to have his grandma (Helen Martin from 227) and little Stevie on set to witness him acting out the shameful stereotype? And how did that little boy know to frown disapprovingly? He’d already rehearsed the part with Bobby and didn’t seem offended then. While Bobby’s filming he looks over and sees Stevie hanging his head in shame, and that’s what makes him decide he can’t play this part. But wouldn’t it be more powerful if he looked over and saw him smiling proudly, and that’s what did it? Like, I can’t teach my little brother that this is cool?
But oh well. It was obviously pretty new at that time to be calling out these stereotypes using popular entertainment. This was 13 years before Spike Lee made BAMBOOZLED, and Townsend makes a more coherent (and entertaining) version of the same argument, from what I remember about that one.
Alot of the humor is pretty dated though. They work in parodies of Rambo, Dirty Harry, Amadeus, Indiana Jones (specifically TEMPLE OF DOOM) and cliche generic genres like “detective” or “’50s sci fi.” Usually the joke in the parodies is along the line of “what if it was a black guy?” Then he would be called Rambro, or the detective would narrate real seriously about “doing the nasty” in his case “Death of a Breakdancer.” Those types of jokes play pretty corny in the world this movie helped create, a world that has had years of black culture sketch comedy on In Living Color, Chapelle’s Show and Key & Peele. Then again, it wouldn’t be surprising to see worse jokes in a modern parody movie, sitcom or SNL sketch.
The music is a little fusiony but kinda good. It’s by Udi Harpaz, who also did such important works as NINJA III: THE DOMINATION and the cartoons Mister T and Chuck Norris Karate Kommandos. Cinematographer Peter Deming had done one movie previously: EVIL DEAD 2. He went on to be a go-to cinematographer not just for Sam Raimi but also David Lynch.
Townsend peppered his cast with friends from the comedy scene, including John Witherspoon, Paul Mooney, Damon Wayans, Dom Irrera, Franklyn Ajaye, and Rusty Cundieff, who six years later would do his own starring/directing/parody vehicle, FEAR OF A BLACK HAT. Keenan Ivory Wayans, who also worked with Townsend on Eddie Murphy’s RAW and his HBO special Robert Townsend and His Partners in Crime, co-wrote the screenplay. His directing/starring/parody vehicle I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA was the next year. He’s also in my opinion the MVP of the movie for playing the part of Jerry Curl, a character in a black and white mystery show who completely breaks down when Townsend’s detective character steals his jheri curl applicator and threatens to dump it out if he won’t talk.
A million other people were dressing up like Rambo as a joke but nobody else would’ve come up with the Jerry Curl scene, and that’s why it’s beautiful. It’s specific to the time and to black culture and it’s a really good acting performance that sells it. It’s too bad, we all kind of turn our nose up to the Wayans family because of the broad, dumb comedy they’ve become associated with over the years. But there was a time when Keenen and Damon especially were young and hungry, when they broke through and rode the wave for a while and they were pretty great.
You know what else is noteworthy about that section of the movie? Steve James. There’s a part where Townsend gets in a fight with a bunch of roughnecks, and one of them is the one and only AMERICAN NINJA sidekick. He was fight coordinator for the scene, and he gets to kick Townsend onto his ass. While wearing a skirt. (Wayans gave him a much bigger role in I’M GONNA GIT YOU SUCKA as the Jim Kelly-like Kung Fu Joe.)
It’s worth considering James’s career before this and what type of typecasting he faced. He’d already been in co-starring roles in AMERICAN NINJA, AVENGING FORCE, DELTA FORCE and William Friedkin’s C.A.T. SQUAD, but earlier he may have been auditioning for stupid roles. In the TV movie MUGGABLE MARY, STREET COP he played the part of “Park Slasher – Rapist.” In Times Square he played “Dude.” He was a Baseball Fury! But he played more bit parts as cops and soldiers than as criminals. In his bigger roles he was able to play handsome heroic guys, but unfortunately often relegated to the sidekick of a white protagonist.
You know what I learned about Townsend? He was a Baseball Fury too. At least that’s what IMDb says. I guess anybody could say they were a Baseball Fury under that makeup. It would be hard to disprove. And in a sense we are all Baseball Furies anyway. But my point is, apparently the answer was no, he could not dig it. So he went and made HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE. We need more people with initiative like that.