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Robert Townsend moved to Los Angeles within the early 80s, decided to turn out to be a Hollywood star. And although he had shortly emerged as a draw on the standup circuit, the Chicago native struggled to reckon with the structural racism he encountered whereas auditioning for bit components on movie and TV – the overwhelming majority of them ham-fisted stereotypes, from snitch to slave.

Earlier than lengthy, Townsend’s casting name tales – a few of them humiliating, most of them hilariously tone deaf – turned too overwhelming for his common postmortems with Keenen Ivory Wayans, who was going by way of the very same factor.

At the same time as he landed meaty supporting roles in Cooley Excessive and A Soldier’s Story, Townsend tried roping Wayans into a movie undertaking about their profession heartbreaks, however Wayans was skeptical. Townsend by no means went to movie college, a lot much less had shot or written something. Townsend didn’t have a lot cash both. What he did have was coaching with a Chicago theater group known as the Experimental Black Actors Guild, beginning at age 14. “I used to be round technicians who have been Black – writers, administrators, producers, set designers,” Townsend says to the Guardian. “I used to be telling Keenen, We will do that. There’s nothing mystical or magical about it.”

In 1987, a 12 months after Spike Lee introduced himself with She’s Gotta Have It, Townsend launched Hollywood Shuffle – a 78-minute comedic allegory concerning the compromises the business forces on Black actors in change for trustworthy work. Townsend exhibits spectacular vary as hero Bobby Taylor, a hungry younger actor who daydreams of roles in slave dramas and blaxploitation flicks – without delay parodying acquainted tropes whereas craving to play them significantly. His off-screen hustle left a mark, too.

Townsend maxed out a handful of bank cards, or $60,000 in debt, to make Hollywood Shuffle – which went on to gross greater than $5m on the field workplace. Roger Ebert known as it “a logistical triumph”. It heralded Townsend as a multitalented star and indie movie world darling, and established on-screen careers for co-stars Wayans (In Residing Shade), John Witherspoon (Friday), Anne-Marie Johnson (Within the Warmth of the Evening) and even launched Damon Wayans. This month it was introduced that the movie can be added to the Criterion Assortment record in February. Its affect on unbiased film-making has been understated for a lot too lengthy. “There’s most likely a 20-year interval the place persons are saying, ‘I’m gonna make my film on bank cards,’” notes famend movie scholar Elvis Mitchell. “That’s Hollywood Shuffle.”

Thirty-five years later, Hollywood Shuffle nonetheless charges among the many most scathing indictments of the business. One particularly withering apart, known as Black Performing College, by which Bobby imagines himself endorsing a technique that teaches Black actors methods to be even blacker, even anticipated the rise of Black Brits in disguise as Black American characters. Did Townsend know? “No, I didn’t,” he says. “After I first began as a standup, all these Black comedians got here on with the same type of, ‘Wuzzup I’m from the ghetto, child’ factor.” To face out, he’d do the identical traces, however in a complicated accent. “However I gotta say, I don’t know if Black British actors are skilled in a different way or they’re hungrier, however there’s one thing to be mentioned. However there’s a wave that got here, and people are some actually sturdy actors. Like, John Boyega is a beast.”

Townsend’s towering ambition would’ve been apparent to any of his Hollywood Shuffle collaborators. He lower Wayans from a Siskel & Ebert-style spoof after the latter stored lacking rehearsals. “I knew he was out chasin’ some honey,” Townsend jokes. “I received mad. I’m takin’ this actual critical. I began in theater in Chicago. I discovered my manners there: be on time. Be nicely rehearsed. Heat up the actors. Discuss by way of the beats of the scene. I used to be actually taking time. When it’s your cash and also you solely have slightly little bit of it, you gotta be actually sensible.”

Altogether, Hollywood Shuffle was shot in two years over 12 days. To assist maintain the undertaking on finances, he collected unused movie from his common gigs. “Again within the day, a movie journal was like 10 minutes lengthy, and a scene could be six and a half minutes,” he explains. “So no matter was left over they’d both throw away or give away. After I completed A Soldier’s Story, I known as [director] Norman Jewison and [the producers] and mentioned, I’m gonna make my very own film. Can I’ve the leftover movie? They mentioned, ‘Take as a lot as you need.’

A still from Hollywood Shuffle
A nonetheless from Hollywood Shuffle. {Photograph}: British Movie Institute

“Movie-makers now, they don’t perceive how onerous it was again then to make a film. You gotta put it collectively, rip it aside, dig for clips in a bin, splice it collectively.” What’s extra, most of that modifying occurred at a post-production studio for porn motion pictures. “Keenen got here up with the concept,” Townsend says. “There have been 16 totally different editors within the totally different suites. I had by no means heard anybody direct porno. And it was like, ‘Put your head down! Put your head again! Be a part of! Be a part of!’ All people wound up coming all the way down to my suite. They have been like, ‘Oh, you’re engaged on a actual film.”

In the long run Samuel Goldwyn Jr purchased Hollywood Shuffle from Townsend for $100,000. And when it was launched within the spring of ’87, it was the speak of the city. However when Eddie Murphy known as to see for himself whereas on tour in Europe, Townsend and Wayans hesitated. In one other apart within the movie, Bobby fantasizes a couple of casting name for an Eddie Murphy-type and wins the half upon arriving in blackface. And because it approached throughout a personal screening Townsend and Wayans arrange for Murphy in Burbank, the co-screenwriters swallowed onerous.

“Hey Eddie!” one member of his entourage shouted when the scene lastly arrived. “They talkin bout you!” A hush fell over the theater, as Townsend and Wayans contemplated the repercussions of offending a pricey buddy who simply occurred to be the most important entertainer on the planet. However when the scene was over, Murphy’s honk-laugh crammed the room. As the ultimate credit rolled, Townsend sought out Murphy to apologize. “No man, I really like this,” he instructed Townsend, earlier than asking if he’d be up for steering a live performance movie he had in his head. That turned out to be Eddie Murphy Uncooked. “Eddie was dwelling in a complete ’nother stratosphere,” Townsend says. “He wasn’t gonna hear from actors, ‘Hey, man, went on one other audition the place they wished me to be you.’ I believe there was a stupendous reality that he found. However I used to be sharing my reality. Again then it was, ‘We would like you to be like Eddie! Are you able to giggle like Eddie?’ All of that stuff was actual.”

After that Townsend might do no incorrect. He directed extra options, maybe none extra beloved than his Temptations-inspired 5 Heartbeats. He headlined an HBO comedy particular, Robert Townsend’s Companions in Crime, that not solely set a template for Wayans’s In Residing Shade, he even nailed Black folks on soapy TV – which, once more, was a long time from changing into Andy Cohen and Tyler Perry’s factor. His imaginative sitcom, The Mother or father ’Hood, ran for 5 seasons.

A still of Meteor Man
A nonetheless of Meteor Man. {Photograph}: Cinetext Assortment/Sportsphoto/Allstar

At 65, Townsend works at a snug tempo. He was ready to tour a one-man stage manufacturing, Residing the Shuffle, three years in the past, however then the pandemic hit; a few of his tales are wild (Frank Sinatra inviting him to a 77th birthday bash in Vegas after seeing the 5 Heartbeats), others extra poignant (having Sidney Poitier for a profession mentor); most likely, the yarns will finally turn out to be a part of one other comedy particular. Townsend doesn’t act as a lot as he used to. However when he did flip up within the pulp comedian e book TV collection Black Lightning, followers couldn’t assist however be reminded of his early work directing and starring in Meteor Man. Largely, he’s stored busy directing TV collection like Netflix’s upcoming rip-off drama Kaleidoscope and Peacock’s reboot of the ensemble romcom The Finest Man.

Hollywood has come a good distance since Townsend’s directorial debut. Some stereotypes have gone away, whereas others have developed. For all of Hollywood Shuffle’s biting satire, you marvel: did the business actually be taught the lesson? “I’ve had folks from the Indian neighborhood, the Mexican neighborhood go, ‘ that’s our story too, man,” Townsend says. “There was even a cat that was Italian that went, ‘For me it’s mobsters.’ It’s been a supply of inspiration.

“Has it made a distinction? I believe it has. You’ll be able to’t put it on paper and say due to Hollywood Shuffle, these items modified. However I believe as a result of Hollywood Shuffle exists, these issues are all the time in dialog.”


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