Thursday, February 28, 2019

80's Watch: Hollywood Shuffle (1987)

Watched:  02/26/2019
Format:  Amazon Streaming
Viewing:  No idea.  At least third.
Decade:  1980's

Back when Hollywood Shuffle (1987) first showed up on home video, it was a movie I recall renting and really liking.  I know for a fact I only sorta got what the movie was saying and doing and was more interested in the fact that some of the sketches and spoofs played well to even a 13 year old.  After all, the movie is about an actor's journey through casting and into his first day on set of a film, loaded with cut-away scenes where they lampoon Hollywood movies.

While I do remember getting the moral of the story, I really don't think I quite got the depth of the issue Robert Townsend (writer/ director/ star/ producer) was highlighting with the film - that the options for Black talent in Hollywood is limited at best, and arguably a warped circle of cliches and dead-ends.

I'm not sure every bit from the movie holds up in 2019, and there's a few gay jokes that now land like a sack of wet cement, but in the 32 years since this movie hit, a lot has changed, and a lot has not.  I am not about to actually run any numbers (that would be work), but we do know that Hollywood still has a long way to go in both diversifying casts and providing opportunity for casts that aren't diverse, but star mostly minority characters (I think I read it was 20 years between major studio releases featuring a majority Asian cast when Crazy Rich Asians showed up).  The film does focus on the experience of a hungry Black actor, and so that's primarily what we see - not just the roles written for Black actors, but the casting experiences and how they're asked to play the parts.

The good news, if this movie is starting to sound like a lecture, is that it's still pretty funny.  Some of the sketches hold up all too well, and some of the stuff that's just part of the narrative really works.  And it's certainly easier to get your head around an idea when you're laughing and on the side of the heroes.

When I think about what 13-year-old-me saw watching this movie, I suspect it was a basic understanding of what Townsend was saying - the film's final scenes are something that stuck with me  and I've thought about pretty often in the years since I last watched the movie, but I don't think I quite got that it wasn't just the goofy caricatures making mistakes in their work, but a system of rewards that has no curiosity or new ideas that didn't come from *other* media that creates an impossible situation.  No one is being malicious, but when you get a chance to see the ignorance through Townsend's eyes, it's a film I think they should show a whole lot more in film schools.

Clearly this was a passion project not just by Townsend, with all the hats he wore, but by some faces that would become household names within a couple of years.  If you've forgotten, actors like Keenan Ivory Wayans and Damon Wayans are part of the ensemble of actors who all play multiple roles.   And while I wouldn't argue that an SNL-like set-up for casting is ideal for many movies, here it sort of adds to the DIY aspect of the film, the sketches allowing for that flexibility.

Anyway, Townsend is still out there.  He's been on and directed an episode of Black Lightning on CW (Townsend has a thing for superheroes, so it's rewarding to see him involved).  And he has no small number of other projects he's been able to take on in the years inbetween.

I *did* have flashes of "oh, this is where we got that" from a few phrases and whatnot from my youth.  Not the least being "we give this movie - the finger".  And, of course, a whole lot of referencing of Winky Dinky Dog when discussing work plans.

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