The 1987 satirical comedy Hollywood Shuffle details the struggles of a Black actor dealing with the racial stereotypes within the studio system through the use of hilarious sketches riffing on genre films and Black culture. Directed by Robert Townsend, the film stars Keenan Ivory Wayans, Helen Martin, and Anne-Marie Johnson among a host of well known comedians. The Blu-ray from Criterion Collection arrives with a newly remastered A/V package and bonus features for fans of the film. Recommended.
“Oh man, the critics don’t know nothing.”
A series of sketch comedy riffs hold together the loose narrative of Hollywood Shuffle in which a struggling Black actor (Robert Townsend, The Mighty Quinn) navigates the Hollywood system of churning out roles that perpetuate negative stereotypes of African Americans. Independently financed through personal credit cards, the film was Townsend’s debut feature calling on the experiences he and co-writer Kennan Ivory Wayans had as actors dodging the painful realities of “Black” characters in studio films.
Townsend’s likable Bobby Taylor is close to snagging the lead role in the pimp-heavy gangland film Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge but according to the casting director he may not be “black enough” for the part. Conflicted on balancing the possible achievements and success of a working actor versus the disparaging and humiliating aspects of perpetuating Black stereotypes, Bobby falls into a series of dream-like vignettes hilariously mocking Hollywood’s treatment of minorities in film.
Hollywood Shuffle cuts the racist tropes with satirical precision aiming squarely on filmmakers and casting directors, but also the audiences who unwillingly pay to see these films. “Black Acting School” starts off the sketchfest with a look at white acting instructors helping Black actors perform as escaped slaves, butlers, and pimps offering “You too can learn to walk Black.” Later Townsend’s sketch cycle leans heavily into a noir-themed TV show titled Sam Ace: Death of a Breakdancer which challenges the film’s momentum but its introduction of Wayan’s infamous character Jheri Curl reveals a labor of love. Bobby’s identity crisis reaches a fever pitch during a Twilight Zone-styled segment in which every actor is dressed in a leather jacket because the director is looking for “an Eddie Murphy type”.
Deep within Hollywood Shuffle Townsend is exposing the impact of these racist stereotypes on society. Why would so many white filmmakers want their Black actors to be “more black”? Well, as the writer of Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge reveals he learned about urban life through the movies. The cycle continues, right? When Bobby is working his lines surrounded by other working actors hoping to make a break he can't help but notice the disappointment on his little brother’s face. While the kid doesn’t understand the need for steady work he understands the false representation staring at him across the room.
Townsend surrounds himself with a talented troupe of actors who effortlessly nail the absurdist comedy while embracing the dramatic moments with careful attention. Helen Martin, John Witherspoon, Anne-Marie Johnson, and David McKnight provide memorable performances outside of the supporting players fueling the comedy vignettes. Hollywood Shuffle showcases not only the comedic talents of Townsend and Wayans but also their struggles which now 35 years later still seem relatable.
Vita Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Hollywood Shuffle arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of The Criterion Collection. Housed in a transparent keepcase, the Region A disc is accompanied by an insert booklet with an essay by Aisha Harris. The disc immediately loads the static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options.
The AVC encoded 1080p HD image is presented in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Scanned in 4k from the original 35mm camera negative this new transfer provides a clean and textured image full of life. Primaries are bright and vivid with blues and reds popping nicely. Fine detail within facial features and costuming is evident. Shot on both 35mm and 16mm stock, grain levels are stable and nicely preserved throughout the feature. During the Sam Ace segment the 16mm grain structure is heavier offering a noticeable difference in texture though Townsend’s choice here smartly reflects a genre aesthetic. Inky black levels support strong depth and contrast for an excellent image presentation.
Those with the 2015 Olive Films Blu-ray disc will notice the improvements in image detail, clarity, and depth in this remastered presentation from Criterion. Upgrading to this release is a no-brainer given the other technical improvements and special features.
Hollywood Shuffle arrives on Criterion Blu-ray with a clean and precise PCM mono track remastered from the original 35mm magnetic track. Dialogue exchanges are crisp without hiss or pop detected. Scoring elements are robust allowing dialogue and effects room to breathe resulting in a mix that never sounds flat. Rustling popcorn buckets from our amateur movie critics, the scraping feet of zombie street pimps, and the rustling of scripts in the audition room are presented in distinct clarity.
Criterion’s newly produced interviews and commentary track pair well with the Elvis Mitchell radio segment to give new audiences plenty to experience. Start with the Townsend track before moving through the other features.
Townsend’s satirical comedy Hollywood Shuffle aims to expose the racial stereotypes within the Hollywood system and its damaging effects on society at large. Townsend and Wayans poured their experiences as young Black actors into this independent feature that still resonates 35 years later. The Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection arrives with a remastered A/V package and enough bonus features for fans of the film. Recommended.