Sunday, September 23, 2018

My HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE Moment

A major Hollywood studio should have offered actor/director Robert Townsend a 3-picture deal after the release and reviews of his hilarious, accurate and warm-hearted satire of the limited work for black actors in 1987's HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.  He used his credit cards and other guerrilla movie-making methods in order to get his indie comedy made.  Townsend stars in, co-wrote and directed HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.  I was lucky enough to have him as a guest on my VH1 talk show when the movie opened.  He lampooned the constant humiliations black actors endure when trying to get work and all that's available to them are stereotypical roles that some folks in the industry want played in stereotypical ways. It is time to re-appreciate Robert Townsend's HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE.  Especially now in this age of "Oscars So White" and calls for more diversity and more inclusion -- in the categories of actors and film critics alike.  HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE airs on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Tuesday, September 25th.  His comedy represents some color barriers we black performers had to break through in order to keep our dreams from dying on the vine.  The Hollywood and Vine.
Robert Townsend was in the fine cast of Norman Jewison's A SOLDIER'S STORY.  The screenplay was adapted by Charles Fuller, the African American talent who won a Pulitzer Prize for writing the play.  However, Jewison, whose IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1967 along with Rod Steiger winning for Best Actor, was stunned when Hollywood would not give him money to produce his new film.  Why?  He was told that "black stories don't sell."  That was code for "We don't support films with a predominantly black cast that do not have a white actor as the hero."  Jewison got his film made, with a smaller budget than some of his films after IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT such as THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, FIDDLER ON THE ROOF and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.  He got A SOLDIER'S STORY made and it was nominated for Best Picture of 1984.

The Hollywood films and the TV practices that Townsend poked in 1987 still need poking.  Ironically, this includes a channel like TCM.  This month, September, TCM has devoted Tuesdays and Thursdays to "The Black Experience On Film."  The hosts are members of the AAFCA, the African American Critics Association.  Watching has been a monumental joy to me -- because the last time I saw a black host on TCM was trailblazer DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST director Julie Dash in December 2016.

As devoted as I've been to TCM since 1999, in the last couple of years I have wondered if there are any people of color in upper management there to pitch a nod to its diverse audience.  When TCM was giving a big build-up to LA LA LAND, Black Twitter was buzzing about a film festival release called MOONLIGHT directed by Barry Jenkins.  TCM never mentioned MOONLIGHT.  Jenkins' movie upset LA LA LAND for the Best Picture Oscar. When TCM gave a big build-up to Todd Haynes' WONDERSTRUCK, Rotten Tomatoes gave a 100% to a new thriller called GET OUT. It did fabulous business at the box office. TCM never mentioned GET OUT.  WONDERSTRUCK struck out at the box office.  GET OUT writer/director Jordan Peele won an Oscar for his original race drama/psychological horror story screenplay, a screenplay inspired by THE STEPFORD WIVES, ROSEMARY'S BABY and GUESS WHO'S COMING TO DINNER.

Todd Haynes was a Guest Programmer on TCM to co-host a night of movies he selected and to plug his WONDERSTRUCK.  I'd approach Jordan Peele to be a Guest Programmer.  It's been well over a year or two since TCM had a black artist in its monthly Guest Programmer slot.

Seeing black critics as guest hosts on TCM this month has been not only refreshing, it's been long overdue.

When I had my VH1 talk show, not only was it extreme fun but it was also a privilege for which I am still grateful.  I got a great review from the New York Times, People Magazine and TV Guide.  I still did not have a broadcast agent.  Agents said they wouldn't know what to do with me.  One said that if I did weather, he could get me local TV news jobs in a heartbeat.  I don't do weather. Here's what I showed to the agents back then.
In 1990, right after my VH1 contract ended, I had a meeting with an agent at a very famous agency in New York City.  I was thrilled and positive I'd be on my way to the next phase of my career that I had planned.  I told the agent that I wanted to do another talk show, or host a smart game show or do supporting roles in good comedies -- like the role Bill Murray did in TOOTSIE.

The agent replied, "But that wasn't a role for a black actor."  By the way, the agent was about as white as winter in Minnesota.  Look at TOOTSIE again.  Bill Murray's character could've been Bill, or a John Leguizamo or a Randall Park (the dad on the ABC sitcom, FRESH OFF THE BOAT).  The roommate role in TOOTSIE didn't just have to be played by a white actor -- but that's how agents thought. And that's what has frustrated we people of color who perform and seek work for a long, long time.

I signed with that agent, then parted company after one year.  I never had a meeting about hosting another talk show.  I had auditions to play either inner city homeboys, prison inmates or thugs.  I left the agent after he submitted me to play a knucklehead thug in 1993's WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S 2.  The sequel's script called for the two black simple-minded crooks to perform a voodoo dance with the Bernie corpse in a Times Square porno movie theater men's room using a boombox and a bucket of fried chicken.

I was appalled at the script's images of black men from a white writer.  But to refuse the audition could've labeled me as difficult.  Difficult AND black.  I kept my audition appointment.  I was told by the three white men in the audition -- the writer/director and a couple of others -- to make any kind of choice I wanted when I entered the room to read for the part.

So...I played him like Zero Mostel's high energy, desperate theatrical loser Max Bialystock in Mel Brooks' THE PRODUCERS. I gave them Zero Mostel.  The three white men were slack-jawed.  I made a choice without giving them the expected stereotype they wanted to see. Nothing against the actor who did book the part.  I knew I wouldn't get it -- and I was glad I wouldn't.  The thug in the red jacket is the character my ex-agent submitted me to play.  This is the exact audition scene I was given. It advanced to the WEEKEND AT BERNIE'S 2 shooting script:

That was my HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE moment in a New York City casting session.  And that is why I am so passionate about diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities in the arts.  To keep things like that from happening to the new generation. Representation matters.

HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE airs Sept. 25th at 8p Eastern on TCM.

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