Robert Townsend- 2017
Actor, director, comedian and writer best known for directing and writing Hollywood Shuffle
Making Hollywood Shuffle
By Tania Randazzo (Business Management, Class of 2024)
Robert Townsend once described himself as “just a regular guy trying to make a difference”. Robert Townsend is anything but a regular guy, despite what he says. He is a man who created a significant path for black actors across America. Using his own struggles and experiences of his life as a black actor, he acted and made change to the things he did not like. However, he did it in a way that was unconventional at the time. He did it through comedy.
Townsend took a serious subject and turned it more lighthearted, almost like making a pill easier for the audience to swallow. He saw that black actors were usually employed for a role once a year and had roles that mostly consisted of gangsters and thugs. Since there were so few opportunities for black actors to be cast in a positive role, he created an opportunity, and this began with his movie Hollywood Shuffle. “We should do a movie about our lives.” (Holahan). Once the movie came out, it was safe to say that Hollywood Shuffle most literally caused Hollywood to shuffle. His satirical display of how black actors were treated in Hollywood become a sensation. Not only was it a comical movie but it was also an eye-opener for many people. His comical stance and approach to the dark subject that is the mistreatment of black actors, he was able to show people a different side of the story without seeming critical and harsh and making people become defensive. His movie was lighthearted and entertaining overall, but the underlying message was strong and that's why it was so effective and impactful. Hollywood Shuffle launched Robert Townsend's career and his overall goal in his acting career which was to change the narrative put on black actors, a goal that is still important and relevant to us today.
Following his inspiration for Hollywood Shuffle was not easy. With no money and no support from any studio, Townsend used all his credit cards and any money he made from spare acting gigs to help finance this movie. $100,000 and 2 years later, along with the help of Samuel Goldwyn Company, Hollywood Shuffle was released in theaters. No one knew how this movie was going to fare. A movie written, produced, and starred in by a black actor was practically unheard of, Townsend himself said it. “The idea of somebody writing, directing, producing, and starring in a movie, especially a person of color, wasn’t heard of. Everybody said the bar was so high, you couldn’t get in if you didn’t have millions and millions of dollars.” Hollywood Shuffle managed to sum up to more than $5 million dollars.
Hollywood Shuffle created a path and a base for black actors and directors. He created confidence in new black actors and directors in the future. “I don’t want to take credit, but I just know that we planted seeds that it was okay to be funny, to write-direct-produce,” Townsend says. “When people heard the story of Hollywood Shuffle and how we did it, I think it gave inspiration to a lot of filmmakers to say, ‘If Robert can do it with a credit card, I can do it.’ So, when I look at where we are now currently in history, and there are all these directors, writers, producers, and actors, I remember when it was only me and Spike. I think we did have impact on that because before that there weren’t a lot of people that I was aware of that were trying to do that.” Townsend's message through Hollywood Shuffle opened a lot of doors and helped reshaped the image and stereotypes that were put on black actors during his time. Hollywood Shuffle can be considered one of the many steppingstones that have allowed black actors in Hollywood to become as successful as they are today. The message in the movie was relevant then just as it is relevant now and it is important to continue the message and create more equality. Robert Townsend once described himself as "just a regular guy trying to make a difference" and that is exactly what he has done.
"About." Robert Townsend, www.roberttownsend.com/about-2.
Crowder, Marcus. "Robert Townsend Still Shufflin' in Hollywood and Now Taking the Stage in Berkeley." Datebook, Datebook | San Francisco Arts & Entertainment Guide, 23 Oct. 2019, datebook.sfchronicle.com/theater/robert-townsend-still-shufflin-in-hollywood-and- now-taking-the-stage-in-berkeley.
JANE HOLAHAN | Entertainment. "Director, Actor, Writer and Comedian Robert Townsend Giving Hazel I. Jackson Lecture Wednesday." LancasterOnline, 14 Apr. 2017, lancasteronline.com/features/entertainment/director-actor-writer-and-comedian-robert-townsend-giving-hazel-i-jackson-lecture-wednesday/article_fd331b46-2136-11e7-b46b-ef9c73004f21.html.
Pirnia, Garin, et al. "30 Years Later, the Searing Critiques of Hollywood Shuffle Still Sting." Vanity Fair, www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2017/03/hollywood-shuffle-anniversary- robert-townsend-keenen-ivory-wayans.
"Robert Townsend Gives Positive View of Black Family Life on 'The Parent 'Hood.' (Television)(Cover Story)(Interview)." Jet, vol. v89, no. n11, Jan. 1996, p. p24. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edscpi&AN=edscpi.A17900859&authtype=sso&custid=s3915890&site=eds-live&scope=site.
"Robert Townsend: Role Model and Regular Guy. (Motion Picture Actor)." American Visions, vol. v8, no. n1, Feb. 1993, p. p46. EBSCOhost.
Work That is Truly Inspirational
By Sean Chirico
Robert Townsend is a great author, actor, and director, but what he has done behind the scenes and what he has done for the people around him is what really matters. Robert Townsend grew up in Chicago, in a very rough part of the city. He wanted more in life than to stay in Chicago and get in trouble. At a young age he was very interested in film and watching different movies. He knew that was what he wanted to do in life and that was his way out. It wasn’t easy for him, but he made it work, saving every dollar he made to pursue his dreams. His dreams of being a great author, actor, and director really came true, and he used that success to help so many other black actors.
When Robert Townsend got to Hollywood, he saw how black actors had no jobs, no films to get into. There was a huge lack of work for the black community in the film industry, and this is what drove Robert Townsend to not only become a writer and actor, but to become a director. So, he could direct films for black people to star in and give them a job. Seeing the unused talent of Black actors "left a burning desire for Robert to step behind the camera"(Los Angeles Times). That burning desire that Robert felt really pushed him to create Hollywood Shuffle. When Robert Townsend directed and acted in the movie Hollywood Shuffle, he gave a voice to many under-appreciated people and changed a lot of stereotypical thoughts about black films. As film critics have noticed, "by depicting harsh and disturbing scenes of violence and racism, Townsend has sought to rid African Americans of a constraining “slave mentality” by exposing and exploding African American stereotypes" (Dollars and Sense, Robert Townsend).
Townsend knew how people viewed black films and black people, so he wanted to change their perspective. The slave mentality was so toxic to the film industry for black people. As Townsend explains, “People need inspiration, especially black people" (Interview). When a black person was in the film industry in anyway, it would be almost guaranteed that their boss was white. White people would not go out to their way to talk to Black people, mentor them, or help them in anyway. They had no one to look up too, so Townsend changed that. He would be the person to motivate them and give them confidence. Hollywood Shuffle created a comedy to relate to the black community. It was a huge steppingstone to a lot of Black filmmakers.
Another thing that Robert Townsend noticed in Hollywood was that if there was a black film created, it was for the purpose of black people to watch it: "They were never just actors and directors who made films for audiences, but African American actors and directors who made films for African American audiences"(New York Times). He wanted to change that; he hated the fact that people would say "let's go see a black film tonight". His main mission was to get rid of the white films and the black films and be able to call all of them films for all people. The Hollywood Shuffle was a very funny movie; it wasn't just for black people because comedy is for all.
Because the Hollywood Shuffle was so successful, this allowed Robert Townsend to create more and more films. Not Black films, not white films, but comedy films that everyone can sit down and enjoy. Robert Townsend is very important to us today because he paved the way for Black actor's directors and so much more. Without him who knows what films would be like today, maybe Black and white films would still be very different. When he visited Millersville University, he gave the Hazel I. Jackson lecture. He inspired many young people and really related to a lot of people who were listening. He talked about himself and the films he was a part of, showing Black and white people how he did it and gave them advice.
EBONY.com. (2017, December 07). [Interview] Robert Townsend Stays in the Shuffle. Retrieved January 29, 2021, from https://www.huffpost.com/entry/interview-robert-townsend_b_9219756 “And throughout my career, everything I’ve ever created, I’ve had fun.”
Robert Townsend. (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2021, from https://www.roberttownsend.com/
Robert Townsend. (n.d.). Retrieved January 29, 2021, from https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0870186/bio