Bobby Taylor (Robert Townsend), like a lot of people in Los Angeles, is waiting for his big break, and Hollywood is where he has his heart set on, all he needs is the right role to get him noticed and his acting career can finally take off. As it is, he is currently working at a fast food diner, selling hotdogs to the city's denizens and listening to his co-workers and boss do down his dreams; he even has to make transparent excuses to the boss (John Witherspoon) to get time off work when he has an audition. His hairdresser girlfriend Lydia (Anne-Marie Johnson) is sympathetic, but his grandmother (Helen Martin) might have the best take on the situation: maybe the roles he is going for aren't the best...
Director Robert Townsend and his co-writer and co-star Keenen Ivory Wayans had been in the film and television industry for a while by the time they made Hollywood Shuffle, a "don't get mad, get even" satire on the typical situation for African American actors at the point in the mid-nineteen-eighties when this was made. The story of the film's production almost overshadowed its message, as they scraped together their meagre budget through credit cards and celluloid offcuts of existing projects to shoot on, and while it took them a couple of years to get the thing completed, despite a seventeen-day shooting schedule, the results paid back dividends when it assuredly got them noticed.
The message was simple, but so obvious that it was surprising it took this tiny independent flick to make it plain: black actors in Hollywood were, more often than not, making their wages by playing stereotypes. The industry could kid itself that things had moved on from the days of Stepin Fetchit and Willie Best, stars who had made a small fortune for themselves by pandering to frightened or lazy manservant clichés, but really, this highlighted, was the state of roles available any better now when the most an actor of colour could hope for if they were not Eddie Murphy (a friend of Townsend's, incidentally) were a range of criminals and slaves, or characters who didn't reach the end of the movie?
To emphasise this, here Bobby frequently launches into comical reveries about how he sees his chances and those of his fellow black performers, and these were not merely well-observed, but often laugh out loud funny too. Townsend went on to a consistent career, but one with patchier quality than he might have preferred, yet anyone who saw him in Hollywood Shuffle would have great respect for him and feel warmly to his efforts, so well delineated were his concerns in this. In 2020, it was well noted that at the Oscars all of the acting categories had white actors nominated despite moves to more inclusivity: except for one, Cynthia Erivo, who was playing a slave, making a return to check out Townsend and Wayans' points here all the more vital. Maybe not every joke hit its mark, but the commentary did.
In The School of Black Acting skit, the choices are set out with scathing absurdity: black actors are coached by whites in behaving more "black", all the better to essay those pimps and slaves and jive-talkers. At the audition, the casting directors and writers demand they act like the racial flavour of the month (Murphy) if they want to secure any work. In a Siskel and Ebert spoof, Sneaking in the Movies, a pair of "urban" types review the fare on at the movie theatres to expose the sort of thing that any non-white is served up, utterly unrepresentative of their lives and the only thing they can relate to is a horror called Night of the Living Pimps. If anything, the satire was too keen, too cutting, for the domestic scenes with Bobby and Lydia tended to fade somewhat when you wanted them to make more of the choices in Western media: a private eye parody called Death of a Breakdancer was more compelling, though the role model question, where Bobby is taken to task for wanting to be part of this damaging cycle of stereotypes, remained astute. Though things have moved on, there are far more non-white directors in the West now, for a start, Hollywood Shuffle showed some things remained the same, alas. Music by Patrice Rushen and Udi Harpaz.