Tuesday, February 12, 2008

There's Always Work at the Post Office

By Odienator

With surprising poignancy for a sketch comedy, Hollywood Shuffle presents us with a struggling actor whose fantasies about the roles he’d love to play are in stark contrast to the reality of the roles available to him. Directed by Robert Townsend and scripted by him and In Living Color’s Keenen Ivory Wayans, Shuffle jumps between fantasy and reality as it tells the story of a man faced with achieving his dream at the expense of perpetuating the cinematic stereotypes that will eventually keep him down. Townsend financed the film with every credit card and hustle he could muster, and the occasional raggedy edges are part of the charm. Like Sweet Sweetback and She’s Gotta Have It, Hollywood Shuffle is a meta hustle--a movie about one’s hustle made by the director’s hustling.

Bobby Taylor (Robert Townsend) dreams of playing superheroes and winning Oscars, but when we meet him, he’s running lines with his little brother (Craigus R. Johnson) for a pseudo-Blaxploitation movie called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. The script for J.J’s Revenge has atrocious dialogue that even Meryl Streep, possessed by that demon from Abby, couldn’t pull off. “You kill-ded my brutha!” says Bobby in a whiny drawl as he wobbles around holding his crotch. “He was my only brutha! I love-ded him!” When Bobby forgets a line, his brother feeds him this Oscar-worthy chestnut from the script: “I ain’t be got no weapon!”

Bobby hopes to get the part, despite the misgivings of his grandmother (Helen Martin—hilarious, as always). She wants Bobby to succeed, but not at the expense of selling both his soul and his people up the river. "It's work," says Bobby's Mom. "There's work at the post office," says Grandma. At the Jivetime Jimmy audition, Bobby meets a fellow actor (Roy Fegan) who tells him “this is bullshit. It’s just the White man stereotyping us!” He tries to guilt Bobby into leaving, only to abandon his plan and his indignant attitude the second they call him in for his turn.

The all-Whyte production crew, led by JJR’s writer (Dom Irrera) is clueless about how minorities act. In fact, entire patches of dialogue appear to have been lifted from the most sampled record in rap music history, James Brown’s The Payback. “I want revenge! I’m mad! I need some getback!” says Jivetime Jimmy’s brother after being knifed by some stereotypical Mexicans. When faced with a classically trained Black actor, the crew dismisses him without paying much attention. “That’s the worst acting I’ve ever heard,” says the producer.

After the audition, Bobby shows up for work late. Judging by his boss’ reaction, this isn’t new. “You must not want your job, Bobby,” Mr. Jones (John Witherspoon) tells him. Bobby explains that he does, but he also wants to be creative. “You can be creative here,” Mr. Jones tells him. He then lists the items he invented for Winky Dinky Dog, the hot dog stand that serves as Bobby’s daily grind. “Winky Dinky Dog, Winky Dinky Hamburgers, Winky Dinky Dip,” lists Mr. Jones proudly. “And I got a new one, Bobby!” he says excitedly, “Winky Dinky Ho Cake.” “Ho cake?” asks Bobby. “Ho Cake!” exclaims Mr. Jones. “Hos got to eat too!”

During his Winky Dinky Dog shift, Bobby and his co-worker, Donald (Keenan Ivory Wayans) meet and serve the actor who stars on their favorite tv sitcom, There’s a Bat In My House. The plot: A White family shares a home with an African-American man who is also a bat. He’s not a vampire, just a bat. Whenever he’s chased by a White man with a baseball bat, Batty Boy utters his catchphrase “batty batty batty!” before turning into a fake bat on strings and flying away. “Dere’s a Bat in Mah House! Dere’s a Bat in Mah House” sings the theme song. “Someone go get mah stick!”

Batty Boy shows up at Winky Dinky Dog wearing his trademark cape and bat hat, and Bobby fawns all over him. “How can you tell if you have a good script?” he asks Batty Boy. “Does your character…die?” Batty Boy asks him. “No,” replies Bobby. “Then it’s a good script,” says Batty Boy. “Just one hit movie can give you success for life. It’s not about art! It’s about sequel!”

Batty Boy isn’t phased when he learns that the Winky Dinky Dog Special Sauce is actually spit, and Bobby doesn’t flinch when Batty Boy turns out to be a bigger freebaser than Richard Pryor. “I’m gonna work with you one day!” he calls out as Batty Boy shakes from his need of a fix.

As we follow Bobby’s day, we meet his beautician girlfriend, Lydia (Anne-Marie Johnston) and his Uncle Ray (David McKnight). We’re also privy to the numerous parodies and fantasies that populate Hollywood Shuffle. Some, like the film noir Bobby and Lydia watch on TV, exist in Bobby’s real world. Most are figments of his imagination. All are hilarious and say something about the way someone trying to cultivate their hustle might see the world.

After Bobby is lectured by Roy Fegan, he fantasizes about a Black Acting School where he is the spokesperson. With an upper class Brit accent, Bobby leads us through the different classes you can enroll in at Black Acting School. Jive Walking. Pimping 101. Thug Playing. (“This class is for dark skinned Blacks only,” cautions Bobby.) He interviews a recent graduate who can barely contain his excitement at his latest role. “I’m playing a prisoner who tries to fuck this new inmate,” he says proudly. “Excellent!” exclaims Bobby.

Bobby’s fantasies also take a swipe at film critics. He dreams up “Sneakin’ in the Movies” where two bruvas (Townsend and Jimmy Woodard) sneak into the movies they review on the show. They review an Amadeus parody they can't pronounce, which they both pan. They split on the Indiana Jones parody "Chicago Jones," ("I believe that a guy can jump off a mountain and survive if he braces himself first," argues the homeboy who liked it.) They absolutely LOVE "Attack of the Street Pimps," a cross between The Mack and Dawn of the Dead. And they save their venom (and the skit's funniest lines) for Dirty Larry, a Dirty Harry knockoff. "Realism is important to me," says one homeboy, "and this was bullshit. This is the movie where the criminals wait for Dirty Larry to reach into his jacket and pull out a big ass gun. What did they think he was looking for, his American Express card?"

"Make my day? Do fifty bullets in yo' ass make yo' day?" ask the homeboys

You know Siskel and Ebert wanted to do this at least once.

The Killer Pimps. Even in death, they can't stop holding their dicks.

The Death of a Breakdancer noir skit plays out as part of the regular fabric of the film. It's a parody, but it exists to show that, despite Batty Boy and Jivetime Jimmy, there was the occasional non-offensive role for a Black actor. The skit dates badly, but I still find its villain, Jerry Curl (played by Keenen Ivory Wayans) hilarious. His comeuppance is almost as funny as Coming to America's commentary on that hairstyle. Jerry Curl beats the shit out of the hero, but the hero is less concerned about his injuries than getting Jerry's activator stains out of his clothes. "The cleaning bills were a bitch," says our hero in narration. When the detective gets the jump on Jerry, stealing his activator, Jerry's hair loses its mind. It's not Death of a Breakdancer; it's Death of a Hairstyle. "Gimme back my activator!" screams Jerry as he's interrogated by detective Sam Ace (Townsend) about the death of Cookie Head Jenkins, the best breakdancer in the town. The longer Ace withholds the activator, the nappier Jerry Curl's hair gets. If nothing else, Peter Deming's black and white cin-tog shows just what Sidney Poitier's jHeri Curl would have looked like if he'd had one back in the day.

Townsend saves his most vicious, and his funniest, fantasy for Bobby after he gets the part of Jivetime Jimmy. He shows up on the set and is met again by Roy Fegan. "Oh you got the part," he says before belittling him some more. "I hear the NAACP is boycotting this movie," he tells Bobby. Suddenly, we're at the NAACP boycott where, for the first time, the organization is boycotting an actor, not just the movie he's in. The NAACP is represented by Mr. Paul Mooney, Richard Pryor's writing partner and one of the funniest race comedians ever to tell a Black joke. "They'll never play the Rambos until they stop playing the Sambos!" he tells reporters.

Bobby's brother disowns him, and his grandmother is peddling her new book, Bobby Dearest. One of the marching protesters has a moment of pure anger that made me laugh so hard I had to turn the DVD off. I must present it to you, in all its offensive glory below.

"I think Bobby Taylor is a two bit goat smellin' spook, obviously from the Coon Repertoire Theater of America. We are out here sweatin' like niggas on the way to an election in Georgia because he chooses to bug his eyes, yank his dick, and pull his raggedy skid marked drawers out the cracka his Black ass! I have nothing else to say about Bobby Taylor!"

Bobby's girlfriend at first says she stands by him, but after a female reports asks "come on, sistah. As a Black woman, do you mean you're happy with your boyfriend with that watermelon smile?" Lydia goes off. Pointing at a protest picture of Bobby, she says "my girlfriends ask, does he make THOSE faces in bed?!!" Then she pulls a gun. "I say we kill him," she says before the fantasy violently ends.

Before it does, Bobby admits that he makes these faces in bed sometimes. God help him.

For all its parody, Hollywood Shuffle has deeper intentions. It speaks of the pursuit of dreams, and how important they are to us individually. It informs us that there will be people who want to pull us down, to squash our dreams either so that they can get ahead or because they don't want us to succeed. Late in the film, Bobby goes to visit his uncle. Uncle Ray runs a barber shop, but prior to that, he tried his hand at singing. Uncle Ray speaks to Bobby honestly, telling him how great it felt to be on that stage. He then tells him how he listened to those who badmouthed him, who told him to give up his dreams because he wasn't good enough. The look on actor David McKnight's face as he delivers this speech is heartbreaking, but the wisdom he dispenses is priceless. He tells Bobby to go for his dream if it's what he wants to do.

Bobby should go for his dream of being an actor, but as both Grandma and Bobby's heart eventually point out, not in stereotypical junk like Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. After Bobby quits on the set, he goes home and Townsend presents us his character in his room, bathed in moonlight, thinking about the roles he'd love to play. They're presented comedically, but whenever the film cuts back to Townsend beaming with pride, you can feel how bittersweet Bobby's earlier actions feel to his character.

Townsend would later direct Meteor Man, which is a horrible superhero movie, but still.
Now I'd pay to see this, instead of that "save the White Woman" bullshit Sly's got out now.

He even beats Meryl Streep for this Oscar.

When I watched this film again, I considered at what this film was swiping. Was it actors like Stepin Fetchit, whom Townsend does spot-on during the Black Acting school skit? Was it the TV actors who wound up playing rapists and thugs on the numerous cop shows that ran throughout my childhood. Was it Blaxploitation? Or even Eddie Murphy, whom Townsend imitates quite well (and whom he'd direct in the movie he made after this, Eddie Murphy Raw).

I think Townsend is making fun of Fetchit, but at the same time he's acknowledging that this was the role you got back then. Back then, as opposed to the time this film was set, you probably took it. As Hattie McDaniel once said, "I'd rather make $7,000 playing a maid than make $70 being somebody's maid." In 1987, when this film was made, Eddie Murphy was a big celebrity but he had yet to make Coming to America or Boomerang, two movies that catered more to a Black audience than everyone in general. Murphy was pretty much it, but Spike Lee had just come on the scene, kicking off the Black New Wave that includes this movie.

I don't think Townsend was calling for the abolition of these types of roles (an impossible request, considering now we're making these urban movies like Soul Plane and Belly). Instead, he was asking for balance. The film sums this theory up during the hideously bad rap number by the Hollywood Shuffle players (they're worse than the Chicago Bears). During that number, Jivetime Jimmy's writer, Dom Irrera, sums up what I've always believed is the mantra of those suburban White kids who love rap and the ghetto so damn much: "You see, I learned about Blacks from on TV. So please don't be angry with me."

Hollywood Shuffle ends with the image that opens this piece. Bobby is working for the Post Office doing commercials. His commercial sums up the theme of Hollywood Shuffle. "I have the respect of the community, and that makes me proud...So if you can't take pride in your job, remember, there's always work at the post office."

You better have his money.

Your homework assignment:

Don't knock the hustle.


Steven Boone said...

"Don't say drugs around the man. Don't say coke or freebase, either. (pause) Unless you got some."
-Franklin Ajaye, as Batty Boy's assistant.

What I love about Shuffle was Townsend's effort to cram as many worthy Black actors and comedians into the film as he could, and give them a moment to cut loose.

I'm with you about the barbershop scene. I was in 10th grade when I saw that, and it chilled my blood as well as my spine. It is unbelievably easy to get derailed by other people's poor imagination. I saw that as what motivated Bobby's friends to discourage him, more than envy: impoverished imagination. The pop culture Bobby was trying to become part of on the production side was paradoxically the same one that taught his Winky Dinky comrades to stay in their place.

Oh yeah, man forgot to tell you, I just got promoted to Assistant Crew Chief.

Anonymous said...

Hollywood Shuffle is a great film, an uncomfortable film, a film that made me feel genuinely ashamed of myself.

I saw it after I'd seen Townsend's other things, like The Five Heartbeats (zzzzz), Meteor Man (oh wow, what is up with that ending?), and Townsend Television (yes, someone watched it, an that someone... was ME). Shuffle is so much sharper and angrier than his later works. I wonder why he felt the need to play nice from then on.

odienator said...

Oh no! You can't come out here and dis The Five Heartbeats. I'm not gonna allow that, especially since I'm writing about it a little later this month. That's Townsend's best movie, and I don't think it's one where he plays nice either. That scene with the Heartbeats having to sing for the cops still stings.

I love Hollywood Shuffle for a variety of reasons (it's hilarious, for starters), but there's a special place in my heart for The Five Heartbeats. I would have written about it instead of this, but I figured I could squeeze them both in.

As for Meteor Man--the best thing about that lousy movie was Luther.

odienator said...

Boone, congrats on being promoted to Assistant Crew Chief. Get to making those Winky Dinky Ho Cakes!

I wonder if this is where Keenen hooked up with Franklin Ajaye to do some of the writing on In Living Color.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

I saw "Hollywood Shuffle" three times when it played at the Inwood Theater in Dallas. Even the first time I was conscious that about half of it was really funny, and that it took a turn toward earnestness in some of the framing scenes, and that it played more like a pilot for a TV show than a movie. But then, so did "Kentucky Fried Movie," another film that is, to quote the great humor theorist Henri Bergson, funny as shit.


And am I remembering wrong, or has Kevin Smith fessed up that owes his entire filmmaking career to the backstory of Townsend and his credit cards?

odienator said...

Matt: And am I remembering wrong, or has Kevin Smith fessed up that owes his entire filmmaking career to the backstory of Townsend and his credit cards?

I don't recall Smith saying that, though I wouldn't be surprised if he did.

I wish MGM had put something on the Shuffle DVD like a commentary track or a making of doc or something. MGM Video seems to own a lot of these types of movies, and they just toss them out with no extras or anything. It's almost like I'm getting a bootleg video from outside the Beacon Theater when I rent movies on their label. Leo the Lion should have a jHeri curl and some gold teeth.

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

"Leo the Lion should have a jHeri curl and some gold teeth."

And instead of roaring, he just lets loose with a throaty chuckle, then rumbles, "Awwwww....sheeeeit."

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