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Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

November 8, 2009

6/10 Cattle Calls

Somewhat dated, but holds up as a sharp and original satire on a pretty brutal industry.

Hollywood Shuffle is about Bobby Taylor, a struggling actor with aspirations to become the first black Rambo or Sam Spade as he tries to make it in the cutthroat world of entertainment. But when his big break finally comes around, he has to choose between following his dreams and sacrificing his own dignity at the cost of fame.

I’d heard about this movie for a while, well, mostly through a segment on I Love the ’80s, but it wasn’t until I borrowed it from a fellow movie buff and nearly went a full six months of letting it collect dust that I felt compelled to finally give this a watch. I don’t think he’s going to be lending me any more movies.

I’ve never really seen a whole lot of other movies like this, probably because I grew up with Saturday Night Live instead of In Living Color, but don’t get me wrong, it’s still funny; it’s no Chris Farley-as-a-Chippendale’s-dancer funny, but what is? It’s got an uncommonly racy (pun intended, I guess) sense of humor and it works as a bluntly truthful behind-the-scenes look into the life of a budding actor as he comes to terms with the cost of quick fame.

The script is written by Keenen Ivory Wayans (right before becoming the brainchild of both I’m Gonna Git You Sucka and I.L.C.) and Robert Townsend (who I only really know from after school repeats of The Parent ‘Hood on the WB – anyone else remember that show?) and they really tap into a sense of humor that not a lot of screenwriters go near.

Without being any more vague that I already am, the closest thing I can compare this is Chappelle’s Show. There was this skit Dave Chappelle used to do called “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong” where someone would always screw themselves over because they were too concerned with keeping it real to care about the consequences of what they were doing. Go and YouTube it if you have no idea what I’m talking about, it’s some funny shit. Like all of Chappelle’s best skits, it works because it’s poking fun at stuff that only black people know how to poke fun at. It’s the kind of stuff that would be pulled off the air in a heartbeat if it were written by a white person, but who cares, it’s still freakin’ hilarious.

Hollywood Shuffle has that same “putting a mirror up to culture and society” vibe and it just runs with it. The white directors look like jackasses because every criticism they offer always boils down to, “That’s good, but can you be more…black,” and because that’s the stereotype that the black actors have fallen into, they play along accordingly. It ends up being a send-up of a lot of different things, from blacks, to whites, to Hollywood, to the ’80s, to how some of our most beloved movies would have turned out if they were cast with black actors. It’s not vindictive or anything, it’s very tongue-in-cheek, and there wasn’t a time where I was watching this and thought, “That is such bullshit.” And that’s pretty important with this kind of subject matter.

But at the same time, these sequences where Townsend is daydreaming about schools where classically trained black actors are taught how to act like slaves and street thugs, or what movie reviews would be like if Roger and Ebert were black, and a slew of other “What if…” situations make up a surprisingly large amount of the running time. They’re all pretty funny, but they go on too long and aren’t entertaining enough to make you forget about how much it’s breaking up the flow of the main story.

Also, I feel like black actors have come a long way since ’87. But then again, I’m not really one to talk.

This is probably one of those movies that gets better with repeated viewings and I can see myself giving it another watch some day in the distant future, but until that time, Hollywood Shuffle‘s staying at a comfortable 6. Had me smiling a lot and snickering to myself when the plot wasn’t dragging, but wasn’t the sidesplitting experience it’s been hailed as by the folks on VH1. Until the follow-up review, give it a look. Not as good as Chappelle’s Show, but I don’t think Chappelle’s Show would have even existed if it weren’t for this.

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