Hollywood Shuffle

BUY AT: Amazon.com Amazon.ca

See more details, packaging, or compare


This debut feature by Robert Townsend is an ingenious guerrilla satire that takes riotous aim at the typecasting of Black actors in 1980s Hollywood. The writer-director-star’s megawatt charisma propels Hollywood Shuffle, the hilarious tale of a struggling actor attempting to break into an industry where the only roles available to Black performers seem to be hustlers, butlers, slaves, and “Eddie Murphy types”—forcing him to choose between selling out and maintaining his self-respect. Lampooning everything from film noir to zombie flicks to Siskel and Ebert, Townsend and cowriter Keenen Ivory Wayans cannily turn the frustrations of the Black artist into a subversively funny pop-culture critique.

Picture 9/10

Robert Townsend’s directorial debut Hollywood Shuffle receives a new 4K restoration and Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection. It is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The notes state the scan came from the 35mm original camera negative, though I don’t think this is the case for the entire film.

Famously, the film was made over several years (apparently 12) in guerilla fashion on a super limited budget, around half of which was charged to credit cards. Because of the astronomical cost of film stock for such a low-budget feature, Townsend had to depend on donations of “short ends” (the unexposed portions of used film stock) from others he knew in the industry. That limitation meant he had no choice as to the type of film he could get his hands on and only allowed him to shoot for as long as the material would allow, leading to many quick setups, shoots, and limited takes. Based on all that alone, this film should look like a complete mess, but somehow, despite everything, Townsend pulled it off and outside of the film’s rough edges when it comes to editing, it’s not all that obvious the film went through so many obstacles to make it to the finish line. Remarkably, that also carries on through to the end digital presentation here.

Considering how Townsend made the movie from whatever scraps (literal scraps) of film he could get his hands on over many years without any guaranteed consistency, it wouldn’t have been unfair to expect a wildly inconsistent-looking film. Yet impressively, that isn’t the case where it matters, and in cases where the stock differs from one portion to another, Townsend has used the inconsistency to creative effect. For most of its running time, the film looks incredible, the scan having captured a remarkable level of detail right down to the finer textures while the end encode does a near-impeccable job of translating it all out. Film grain makes its presence known, but it’s not all that heavy and is rendered surprisingly well with no obvious blocky patterns popping up. Colors come out looking nicely saturated and bold with rich-looking black levels. Range can be remarkably vast, leading to deep shadows, all coming together in surprising and stunning ways throughout the film. One of the best-looking scenes in the movie involves Townsend’s character visiting his Uncle Ray (David McKnight) in a darkened barbershop, and the range and depth present in the scene can be astonishing. The setting is lit beautifully, and the shadows look terrific. Though I’m certain economic factors prevented it from getting such an edition, it is a bit of a shame a 4K release wasn't in the cards just for this sequence alone.

Then, there are all of those little skits (representing fantasies and dreams) are scattered throughout. These sequences can feature a significantly different look, including a coarser grain, like the “Black Acting School” segment. Townsend also got his hands on 16mm high-contrast black-and-white film stock, and from this material he creates a noir spoof that pops up midway through the film. While these segments look grainier and not as well-defined as the rest of the film, the digital presentation still renders them well. I was most surprised by the black-and-white sequence due to its look. Blacks are heavy, and whites look slightly blown out, all with limited grayscale in between. But it still looks good, and the contrast is handled nicely, with whites never appearing to bloom. Blacks also still look pretty inky. Even the fine and rather heavy-looking grain is good, which I wasn’t expecting after seeing how Criterion recently handled a similar look in their edition of Lars von Trier’s Epidemic. The grain in that film looked buzzy often and could be distracting, but I didn’t get a sense of that here. It’s not perfect, but it still shows far more natural-looking film texture. I also suspect Criterion scanned these portions from the original 16mm elements and not from a 35mm blow-up, though admittedly can’t confirm that. It just looks to come from a negative, with raw footage from the sequence shown in one of the supplements also suggesting this.

At any rate, it all comes out looking very good. Considering the film's origins, I wasn’t expecting much, but this presentation looked fantastic and blew away all my expectations.

Audio 7/10

The film’s monaural soundtrack is delivered here in lossless, single-channel PCM. There isn't much to the film’s soundtrack, but it sounds fine enough. No heavy damage is present, and the film’s range is adequate if simple, while dialogue sounds sharp and clear. All around, it sounds perfectly fine.

Extras 8/10

The film has received a handful of DVD and Blu-ray releases through the years though nothing that would qualify as anything being close to what could be considered a “special edition.” Criterion corrects that by throwing in a few features, emphasizing the words "a few." Yet, despite only a handful of things on here, the release is surprisingly satisfying.

The most prominent feature here, a new audio commentary featuring director Robert Townsend, is the strongest. As expected, the filmmaker shares stories behind the long and challenging road to making the film, including how he got a good chunk of his funding, a good piece of it from credit cards. He even shares the tricks he learned to get the most bang for his buck, like renting equipment on a Friday for the day but not returning it until first thing Monday morning. He states early on that the film ended up being his “film school,” and he goes over the unexpected issues that came up and the many things he learned, and also talks about his luck in finding the right people to be in the film or work behind the camera.

This is all fascinating and even funny, but the most involving stories are around the inspirations behind getting the film made and the individual skits. Townsend explains how after making A Soldier’s Story he was hyped up to get more work along the lines of that film but, as a Black actor, could only get auditions for roles along the lines of “Pimp #2” and some guy in a pool hall, or worse. Doing stand-up briefly, he would meet Keenan Ivory Wayans (who is going through the same experience), and the two would eventually come up with the idea to make a film reflecting their experiences in Hollywood, both as a way to air their frustrations but also to laugh at the ridiculousness and dehumanizing nature of their experiences. It’s from here where Townsend then talks about the events and encounters that inspired the film’s many skits and characters, relating them directly to his experiences.

Despite its short 80-minute runtime, Townsend packs in a lot and keeps it informative and funny. Still, Doing the Hollywood Shuffle, a 24-minute program featuring actors Rusty Cundieff, Anne-Marie Johnson, and Bobby McGee manages to pick up where Townsend leaves off and comes in from the perspective of those in front of the camera. The three talk about the experience of working on the film, which involved being called back whenever Townsend had money and being transported (by a nondescript white van) to whatever location they could get away with filming without the required permits. The three also go over how the film depicts and satirizes what they’ve experienced in the industry, sharing stories from their own experiences, including being told by casting directors they were reading their lines in a manner that was too articulate or that they just weren’t “Black enough” for whatever thinly written role they were up for—a great companion to the track.

(Also, it is worth noting that the feature includes clips from the film taken from the raw scans of the film elements, without any framing or color correction being applied, and it’s interesting to see what a difference there is between it and the finished presentation.)

Finally, alongside the film’s trailer, Criterion closes things off with a recording from a 2022 episode of Elvis Mitchell’s radio program The Treatment, featuring an interview with Townsend. When it comes to how he was able to finance the film and the general details of its production and timeline, Townsend covers most of the same ground he does in the track. Still, he does expand on other areas, including how he came to setting the appropriate tone for the film and breaking down the opening scene to explain how he aimed to accomplish that. He also seems to credit Norma Jewison (the director of A Soldier’s Story) as a big inspiration to him, which is evident throughout the features since he talks so fondly of the experience of working on that film. The two then discuss the film’s satirizing of the treatment of black actors in Hollywood and also get a little into representation in cinema, Mitchell getting his thoughts in and thus adding the disc’s only academic, third-party angle.

Aisha Harris properly appreciates and analyzes the film in the included insert. However, the lack of much else along the academic lines disc proves to be the release’s biggest shortcoming besides the lack of Keenan Ivory Wayans showing up (though I’ve always just assumed he’s not one to participate in material for home video releases). Still, despite the lack of much else, I felt the features do a fantastic job covering the film’s production while relating the film’s subject matter to the real-life experiences of the director and cast.


Though not a stacked edition by any means, Criterion’s features still thoroughly cover the film’s unorthodox production while relating the satirized elements of the film to the director’s and cast’s real-life experiences. It also features a sharp-looking presentation—a pleasant little surprise of an edition.

BUY AT: Amazon.com Amazon.ca

Directed by: Robert Townsend
Year: 1987
Time: 81 min.
Series: The Criterion Collection
Edition #: 1173
Licensor: MGM Home Entertainment
Release Date: February 28 2023
MSRP: $39.95
1 Disc | BD-50
1.85:1 ratio
English 1.0 PCM Mono
Subtitles: English
Region A
 New audio commentary featuring Robert Townsend   New interviews with actors Rusty Cundieff, Anne-Marie Johnson, and Bobby McGee   Radio program featuring Robert Townsend in conversation with film critic Elvis Mitchell   Trailer   An essay by critic Aisha Harris