Hollywood Shuffle

June 16, 2011

Townsend, Wayans, and Witherspoon: the crew at the Winky Dinky Dog

“That was fine,” says the Hollywood director. “But could you do it a little more…black?”

This bizarre instruction is just one of the myriad absurdities facing the black actor in Hollywood, as pointedly and hilariously described in Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle.

Townsend, a supporting actor in films such as A Soldier’s Story and Ratboy, directed, produced, and co-wrote this low-budget film. He also plays the leading role, of a struggling actor who skips out on his job at the Winky Dinky Dog frankfurter stand to audition for movie and TV roles. He’s up for the lead in a low-budget opus about street gangs, in which he would play a jive-talking stereotype.

Will he take the ridiculous role, or stand by his principles? That’s the small thread on which the film hangs. But along the way, there are delicious parodies of Hollywood films, and a wicked portrait of the filmmaking scene.

The movie departs from its main story to showcase some of Townsend’s daydreams. There’s a wonderful send-up of Siskel/Ebert TV critics, called “Sneaking Into the Movies,” in which two inner-city types render their profane opinions of films. Which also allows for brief film parodies, of Dirty Harry (why do criminals always wait for Harry to reach into his coat pocket and draw out his gun?), and a wild thing with zombie pimps.

The flights of fancy include a black-and-white film noir called Death of a Breakdancer, and a “commercial” for Black Acting School: “You too can learn how to talk jive talk!”

Townsend’s point is that Hollywood filmmakers, most of whom are white, only seem to want blacks to play pimps, hookers, and hoodlums. Or to be “an Eddie Murphy type.”

Amazingly, Townsend’s satire is sharp without seeming mean-spirited. Townsend knows just how to score his points without falling into the trap of obviousness. And his cast is so fresh and likable they could put almost anything over; fetching Anne-Marie Johnson charms more out of her sketchy girlfriend role than what’s really there, and co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans appears as both Townsend’s skeptical co-worker and a hair-obsessed dancer in the film-noir sequence.

Townsend himself is a gifted performer. But his most remarkable performance was in getting this movie made at all (reportedly for a paltry $100,000). Townsend financed some of it with his acting fees, and got unused film from some of the directors for whom he was acting.

As he became successful as a supporting actor, credit-card companies sent him bunches of plastic. Then he hit on the bright idea of simply charging everything–camera rental, film stock, costumes—on numerous personal credit cards. Which is exactly what he did, and exactly how Hollywood Shuffle was completed.

Aspiring filmmakers, take note.

First published in the Herald, May 7, 1987

This was so long ago it was still novel to relate the story of how an indie filmmaker used credit cards to self-finance a picture. That got old quick. Townsend has kept busy, although his follow-up feature as director, The Five Heartbeats, was pretty ham-handed. Wayans, of course, grabbed the parody ball and kept running with it, opening the door for an entire dynasty. I really should have mentioned the performance of John Witherspoon, an incorrigibly funny comic actor and somewhat guilty pleasure, who truly embodies the spirit of the Winky Dinky Dog.