Robert Townsend: 'Hollywood Shuffle' comedy 'came out of pain, frustration'

Robert Townsend looks back at 1987's "Hollywood Shuffle." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI
1 of 7 | Robert Townsend looks back at 1987's "Hollywood Shuffle." File Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 28 (UPI) -- Robert Townsend made his directorial debut with 1987's Hollywood Shuffle, available on Criterion Collection Blu-ray Tuesday. Looking back, Townsend said he stepped behind the camera as a way to be proactive in the industry.

"The idea of making a film came out of pain and frustration," Townsend told UPI in a recent Zoom interview. "I was like, 'I'm sick of how they portray Black actors in these movies.'"


Townsend co-wrote Hollywood Shuffle with Keenan Ivory Wayans. Townsend also plays Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor who finds himself in auditions for stereotypical jive-talking criminal roles.

In interviews and his audio commentary on the Criterion Blu-ray, Townsend recalls one White British director in particular instructing him how to be more Black. The film satirizes casting directors asking classically trained actors to do gangster impressions.


"I don't know if it was the directors' lack of experience or it was what they had seen on television," Townsend said of his real-life auditions. "Then they go, 'Yeah, a Black dude moves like this.' Then I was like, 'I'm a Black dude and we don't move like that.'"

After Hollywood Shuffle came out, Townsend said many actors told him they related to his auditioning experiences, even if they were not Black.

"There were different actors that would see me and go, 'Hey, I'm Italian, I gotta go through this. I'm Asian, there's a stereotype for me,'" Townsend said. "It spoke to a lot of artists period, not just Black artists."

Townsend raised $60,000 to finance Hollywood Shuffle and charged an additional $40,000 on credit cards. He used leftover film from other productions, including A Soldier's Story, in which Townsend starred for director Norman Jewison and producer Ronald Schwary.

Today, Townsend looks at filmmakers like Sean Baker, who made the entire film Tangerine on an iPhone. Townsend said he feels there are even fewer barriers to filmmaking with today's technology.

"You can edit on your computer," Townsend said. "You can shoot with your iPhone so there's nothing to stop anyone from shooting."


Even if a performer only wants to focus on acting, Townsend said there are more ways to be seen today. If an actor cannot find agency representation, Townsend said, they can still send audition tapes or connect with casting directors via Zoom.

"Even if you don't have an agent and you hustle really hard, and you are a talented actor, you could get seen if you are smart," Townsend said. "It just takes a lot of hustle."

One negative aspect of the industry that has only intensified since Hollywood Shuffle is the number of critics shooting down one's aspirations. In his commentary, Townsend shares the advice to be careful who you share your dreams with.

Townsend's example is learning the hard way that when he told people he was going to direct Hollywood Shuffle, people with nothing at stake still told him he couldn't. Now, Townsend sees aspiring artists making themselves vulnerable sharing their dreams on social media.

However, social media also reveals more about those naysayers, Townsend said. He often discovers the most extreme haters have only one other follower and are only tweeting hateful comments.

"This is a person that is all alone, by themselves," Townsend said. "This person is going through a bad time in their life because they have no joy. They're fighting with self-esteem themselves."


After Hollywood Shuffle, Townsend directed Eddie Murphy's concert film Raw, thanks to Murphy seeing Shuffle. Townsend wrote, directed and starred in The Five Heartbeats and The Meteor Man.

Meteor Man was a superhero Townsend created -- ahead of his time.

"I was looking at that as a billion-dollar franchise," Townsend said. "So when I see Black Panther made a billion dollars, I wasn't wrong. My timing might've been a little bit off, but I wasn't wrong that there would be an audience for that eventually."

For the last 20 years, Townsend has gravitated toward directing television, including series like The Wonder Years, Kaleidoscope and Black Lightning. Townsend also guest-starred on Black Lightning, another superhero property.

"I vote for the [Motion Picture] Academy, so there are some great movies that come through," Townsend said. "Some of the best work is not on the silver screen. It's on television."

Hollywood Shuffle also effectively showcased Townsend's acting, leading to roles in films he did not initiate like The Mighty Quinn. Except for his Black Lightning appearances, Townsend has focused on directing for the last decade.


"I just wasn't reading anything that was really interesting to me and exciting to me," Townsend said.

He is preparing to act in an upcoming project he can't yet announce. Still, Townsend said it is challenging to turn off his director's mind.

"When you're the director, you know how everything's going to be, what it's going to feel like," Townsend said. "It's just shifting gears in my brain."

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