'There were no filmmakers of color': How Robert Townsend changed the game with self-financed 1987 comedy 'Hollywood Shuffle'

The groundbreaking 1987 comedy put Hollywood on blast for its deficient representation of Black people onscreen.

Robert Townsend in 'Hollywood Shuffle' (Everett Collection/MGM)
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How scarce were opportunities for Black filmmakers when Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans dreamt up the idea for Hollywood Shuffle in the mid-1980s? Townsend, who had a solid acting career at the time and planned to direct and star in Shuffle, didn’t even consider pitching it to the film industry’s major studios.

“Back then there were no films made by filmmakers of color,” Townsend, 66, tells us now, as his 1987 comedy favorite gets an enriched new Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. “There was a drought. … The idea of [a Black filmmaker] making a movie wasn't in the ether anymore. It wasn’t in the air.”

Indeed, while the 1970s saw game-changing movie star Sidney Poitier step behind the camera, the Blaxploitation movement give rise to the likes of Melvin Van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song) and Gordon Parks (Shaft), and UCLA alumnus Charles Burnett (Killer of Sheep) spurring the L.A. Rebellion, the ’80s marked at least two steps back for Black directors.

Acting opportunities weren’t abundant, either. While Townsend felt he scored a major break landing a role in Norman Jewison’s 1984 War World II drama A Soldier’s Story starring Denzel Washington, it hardly guaranteed future work. “The movie changes my life,” he says. “We get nominated for three Academy Awards. I tell my agent, ‘I wanna do more movies like this.’ My agent goes, ‘Robert, they only do one Black movie a year. You did it. Be happy.’ And then that’s when the filmmaker was born.”

Townsend and Wayans, best friends from their days performing at The Improv in New York in the late-’70s, penned Hollywood Shuffle, a biting, ahead-of-its-time satire of being Black in the movie business in the 1980s. “We’re auditioning for all these bad roles, you know, hustlers, pimps, runaway slaves and illiterate basketball players,” Townsend says of the characters eventually lampooned in his film.

Hollywood Shuffle would star Townsend as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor who yearns to ditch his minimum-wage day job at a hot dog stand. Bobby finally scores a big role — but must reconcile with the fact it’s in a cartoonishly stereotypical project called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge, where his character’s dialogue consists of lines like, “I ain’t be got no weapon!”

Determined to direct film himself, but well aware that Hollywood would never finance it, Townsend bankrolled the movie himself. “I took my life savings at the time — $60,000 — out of the bank,” he says. He maxed out credit cards and borrowed more from friends to cover the rest of the film’s $100,000 cost, which he memorably used as a plea in the film’s trailer.

Then the real work began. “Hollywood Shuffle was like my film school,” says Townsend, who continues to direct today but is also a tenured professor in the University of Southern California’s top-ranked film program. “I was the co-writer. I was the star of the film. I was the director. I was the main producer, main finance person. I drove the camera truck. I worked on craft service [catering]. I cleaned up after everybody left. So I learned every discipline in the process of making the film.”

The film took 12 days to shoot — but two and a half years to edit, mostly because Townsend kept running out of money. Once he had a finished print, Townsend showed it to Samuel Goldwyn Jr. (the son of legendary movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn), who bought it for distribution for the company that shared his name. Townsend immediately asked for the check. “I said, ‘I charged the movie on credit cards and the bills are due,’” Townsend recalls. “But I said, ‘I don't want people to know [that] because they’ll think the movie is cheap.’ And he goes, ‘No, no, no, no, no. That’s the story. We should tell everybody how you were so industrious and figured it out.’ And that became the hook for the film.”

Released March 20, 1987, Hollywood Shuffle scored largely positive reviews from critics — including the taste-making Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the bickering cinematic arbiters who are also spoofed in one of Hollywood Shuffle’s famous vignettes. The duo compared Townsend to Spike Lee, who had emerged out of Brooklyn a year earlier with his critical darling debut She’s Gotta Have It.

The film also netted over $5 million at the box office, a stellar return on Townsend’s investment in himself.

“I was on the cover of magazines, on talk television every night,” he says. “I traveled the world. I went to France and England and Germany and Norway. A little movie done with a credit card took me around the world a couple of times. It changed my life forever to this day.”

CARMEN: A HIP HOPERA, director Robert Townsend, Beyonce, on set, 2001. ph: Carol Kaelson / ©MTV / Courtesy Everett Collection
Director Robert Townsend with Beyoncé on set of 2001's Carmen: A Hip Hopera. (Photo: Carol Kaelson/MTV/courtesy Everett Collection)

And Townsend helped change the face of Hollywood with an enduring comedy classic that put Hollywood on blast for its deficient representation of Black people onscreen. Even if it took decades of gradual progress, and one recent racial reckoning, to see a legitimate sea change and some fruit of his labor.

“I think a lot has changed,” says Townsend, who went on to star in and direct films The Five Heartbeats (1991) and Meteor Man (1993) and now mostly works in television (The Last O.G., The Wonder Years, The Best Man: The Final Chapters). “I mean, we are miles away from where we were in 1982, 1983. There are people of color in lead roles, showrunners, writers, directors, producers, casting [directors], executives.

“We're not totally realized. It's not like, ‘Everything's fine now! It’s done! The civil rights movement is done!’ I think there’s still more work to be done. But I think we’re better than we were.”

Hollywood Shuffle: The Criterion Collection is now available on Amazon.