Robert Townsend looks back on his debut film, "Hollywood Shuffle," with a major sense of fondness. By all accounts, it was a struggle to get off the ground — Townsend notoriously maxed out a handful of credit cards to fund the two-and-a-half-year shoot, and the story itself was born from Townsend's frustrating beginnings as a Black actor. But he quickly decided to take that frustration and spin it into an opportunity. "We were just being bad boys and just having fun," Townsend says now of the experience. "I just felt it was funny. I felt like we wanted to say something."
The intervening years have definitely been kind to Townsend, and to the film he co-wrote with Keenen Ivory Wayans. The duo's scathing critiques take on a new form in a series of sharp, ingenious comedy sketches. From a Siskel & Ebert-style chat show to a remix of classic noirs like "The Maltese Falcon," "Hollywood Shuffle" is so much more than a clapback on Hollywood's worst casting practices. It's also a demonstration of the potential in Black performers, potential Townsend would continue to demonstrate in his varied career as an actor, writer, and director. He set the stage for Black superheroes with "Meteor Man" and Black female buddy comedies with "B.A.P.S.", but with "Hollywood Shuffle" being added to the Criterion Collection this month, Townsend has come full circle.
I spoke with Townsend about the timeless humor of "Hollywood Shuffle," the experience of bringing the film to Criterion, and the evolution of opportunities for Black performers.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
'It's A Totally Different Time Now'
Could you talk a little bit about the idea behind creating "Hollywood Shuffle"?
Basically, in the late '70s, early '80s, I'm a young actor with big dreams in my eyes of acting and playing all kinds of parts. And I find myself caught in a web of auditioning for just stereotypical roles: Pimps, hustlers, drug dealers, gangsters. And rather than complain, I got so frustrated that I decided I would make a movie about my life.
My best friend at the time, and still is, is Keenen Ivory Wayans. And so Keenen and I, both stand-up comedians, decide … well, I say to him, "Man, I'm tired of auditioning for all this crap. Let's make our own movies about our lives and about being Black actors in Hollywood." And he was like, "Rob, you never directed anything. You never did a short." And I go, "Keenen, if we don't do it, we're going to die doing crap." That's how we started to make what would be "Hollywood Shuffle."
There seemed to be a real idea of exceptionalism in Hollywood around the time you started to make the film. You've spoken a lot about Hollywood's choice to only make one Black film a year, if that. How would you describe the industry's attitude toward representation now?
Back then, you may have had only two shows on television with people of color starring in it, and then maybe you had one movie and then everybody else was playing the gangsters and the drug dealers or the pimps and the prostitutes. It's a totally different time now. I mean, there's way more images. Back then, we only had a few creators that were writing, directing. It was Spike [Lee] or me. And then all of a sudden, the huddling started coming in with different filmmakers, but there wasn't a whole lot. I mean, now, we have a lot of creatives of color that are out there. And we have Black networks, so there's more content than ever.
'The Fact That The Film Still Resonates With Audiences Across The World Is A Really Good Feeling'
How has it felt watching this film evolve into such a cultural touchstone across these 30-plus years, and especially getting the Criterion treatment now?
It's really a beautiful feeling, I'm not going to lie. This was my first movie. I had never directed anything. I just felt it was funny. I felt like we wanted to say something. We did say something. And the fact that the film still resonates with audiences across the world is a really good feeling, because I think we planted seeds. We planted seeds about how actors are treated in Hollywood, how the Hollywood system works, how Black actors are part of the problem too because they accept these roles … it's a film about empowerment, so the fact that the Criterion Collection now is like, "Hey, we want to give you the Criterion treatment," it's a good day all the way around.
As a filmmaker, I have watched so many Criterion films to hear the director's commentary and how the film was made and the behind-the-scenes. And to get this treatment now, where people can hear me talk about my journey — because I've never really talked about "Hollywood Shuffle" in depth, so this is the first time. It's a beautiful thing when you create something and it withstands the test of time.
I know you said in the past that all of your films are your babies, but in terms of "Hollywood Shuffle," do you have a favorite moment or a favorite skit that you look back on and you're like, "That was probably one of my favorite parts of making that"?
Let me say this. The film holds up, so I could say, "Oh, it's Sam Ace, the black-and-white with Jheri Curl. That makes me laugh. It's Sneakin' in the Movies, the zombie pimps." But I think the Black Acting School makes me laugh because that was really life in Hollywood as actors. Something like, "Okay, you're the brother. You're the bad one. Watch me do it, brother. You're a homeboy. Come on, brother."
I was looking at it when we were putting together the Criterion [edition], and it's the actors that are in that who really sell the bulls***. Grand Bush, when he goes, "Yeah, I played a rapist twice. That was fun." It's just the absurdity of the world, but that's what we really went through. You would have conversations like that. But I just think we made a lot of beautiful statements in that film. The runaway slaves and the Mandingo as he leaves with the white girl … I mean, we were just being bad boys and just having fun.
'I Love Language, I Love The Sound'
"Hollywood Shuffle" was very much a thesis statement for the kind of films that you wanted to see yourself in, and your dream of playing a Superman-type kind of culminated after that with "Meteor Man." But you've also been pretty outspoken for your love of Shakespeare and classical work in general. Have you given any thought to directing a Shakespeare adaptation?
No, but here's the thing: I've been working on a one-man show about my life. When I first started, I was a stand-up comedian. I did it before Covid hit, and so I was in Berkeley in this theater. So there is a scene in there — my first comedy chunk was I did Black Shakespeare. I had written this chunk because I went to see a Shakespeare play that was done by an all-Black company in New York. And some of the cats were trained classically, and some of them sound like they've walked in off the streets. And so, I wrote this whole routine, and it was basically, when you say Shakespeare, it was like [in a British accent]: "My Lord, I think not. Henceforth in time." [Reverting to his own accent] "But my Lord, hence we shall be there, my Lord." I do this whole thing, and so I'm thinking about shooting my one-man show, and that's going to be a chunk that I want to do in the show. I was just saying that since you said Shakespeare.
It goes back to the Black Acting School skit, the juxtaposition of that accent with [the text].
When I do it on stage, basically I go, "Hark, who goes there? Who goes there, I say, who goes there?" "It be I, my Lord. It be I. Put that sword away before somebody get hurt and it ain't gonna be me." [Laughs] But I love language, I love the sound.
'There's People That Love The Film And Some People That Didn't Get It'
I've got a bit of a selfish question. "B.A.P.S." is one of my favorite movies, and I keep thinking it would be so cool if it got a Criterion treatment as well. With "Hollywood Shuffle" entering the canon, how likely do you think "B.A.P.S." getting in there would be now?
Let me say this: I would love "B.A.P.S." in there. It's kind of interesting because some people love "B.A.P.S." and then some people don't like "B.A.P.S.", and some people are mad because they go, "You gave Halle Berry gold teeth and blonde hair." And I was like, "Yeah, I did!"
She still looked good! She looked great.
I thought so, too. And then they was like, "Why is Robert doing this kind of comedy?" But it's like "The Beverly Hillbillies." It was funny and silly. It's so funny because people want a sequel to that and … I don't know. And then Natalie [Desselle] passed away. But I would love to do a Criterion on "B.A.P.S." I really would, so thank you for asking.
I know it gets a bad rap, but I think it's kind of a similar film [as "Hollywood Shuffle"] in the respect of having your audience feel seen.
The thing that I would say is this: I'm a filmmaker. It's a well-made movie. And if you go on the ride and go, "Oh, it's two country girls trying to make some money and then they find who they are, and at the end of the day, they do win. But it's because they're being honest and transparent." Do gold diggers or women that have ulterior motives exist? Yeah. These two country girls from Decatur, Georgia got caught up in the scheme, but at the end of the day, we reveal their heart, and it's a love story. There's people that love, love, love the film and some people that didn't get it. And those that love it — like you love it and you get it — I've had people go, "Hey, we want to do a remake." Everybody from Megan Thee Stallion to Cardi B is like, "Could we do…" I mean, it's like, I don't know. So, thank you for asking.
'The Well Is Full, Not Dry'
Your directing has run the gamut with so many different genres, and I know you like to stretch yourself in different arenas. So after your one-man show is finished, do you have a genre that you'd love to explore next?
I do. I just can't say.
I mean, let me say this: I have so many ideas in my brain. The well is full, not dry. The well is full. So it's just trying to get everything out of my head. I've got a really active slate of movies and television shows and they're all really different. So, you'll be hearing.
A director-approved 4K digital transfer of "Hollywood Shuffle" is now available on Blu-ray.
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