In 1987, Robert Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle put a satirical spotlight on the struggles of African-American actors, through the tale of Bobby Taylor's battle to find roles that didn't make a mockery of his race. Twenty-five years later, The Help is a box-office success story, Red Tails has put black history on the big screen and we can even claim a handful of black Academy Award winners. But have things really changed? Here's what insiders have said in their most honest moments about being black in Hollywood.
Davis may have won numerous accolades for her role as a feisty maid in The Help, but that doesn't mean she is any more satisfied with the roles available to whom she calls "black women of a certain hue" than Bobby was with acting out stereotypes of African-American men. She told NPR recently, "I don't see a lot of women like me in glamorous roles … where a woman who looks like me gets to be beautiful and sexualized and upwardly mobile."
Heggins can relate to Bobby's Hollywood Shuffle dream of playing parts that seem painfully out of reach to black actors. "Welcome to my life!" she says, explaining that her role in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2 is the closest she's come to being cast in her favorite genre — science fiction. The actress savored her part in the indie film Medicine for Melancholy because the character she played was something other than "the black girl." "I just want to be the American girl," she told The Root.
Reflecting on Red Tails in Vibe, Gooding said he was attracted to the role in part because the film about the Tuskegee Airmen portrayed "a group of masculine, unapologetic black men." He doesn't think the days of limited opportunities are all in the past, though. "So often," he added, "black men in film are emasculated, whether it’s them wearing a dress or whatever the case … we have to take what’s given and often that comes with compromise."
It's not clear when exactly in the 25 years since Hollywood Shuffle was released that Saldana decided it was time for the pity party to end, but it's been at least as long as Barack Obama has been in the White House. She told Ebony last year in a cover story celebrating her starring role in Colombiana, "We have a black president right now, so why the f—- would I sit down and talk about how hard it is for black women in Hollywood?"
Hollywood Shuffle's "Black Acting School" taught aspiring stars how to "talk jive" and "walk black" so they could snag roles as pimps or muggers. "We still have those problems today," Bridges — whose sister played a prostitute in the film — told The Root, lamenting what he calls "inner-city movies." "But what they do now is replace us [black actors] with a rapper. We study the craft and then we get replaced with a hip-hop guy."
In a 2011 interview in which he accused African Americans in the industry of being "greedy and lazy," the Adjustment Bureau actor refused to blame the real-life versions of Tinsel Town studios for black actors' Oscar drought. He told Tavis Smiley, "There are enough brothers with distribution deals that we should be making our own movies." What's his formula for success minus the "shuffle"? He advises black filmmakers to start small (incidentally, just what Townsend did with his low-budget film).
Witcher's Love Jones was a black movie with enough nuance and staying power to convince many fans that the Hollywood Shuffle era was behind us. But his love story with the movie industry was short-lived. Explaining to The Root why he seemed to disappear as a director after the '90s hit, he said, "There has to be something that you want to do that a studio wants to pay for. I was never able to sync that up. I wanted to do ambitious films with more black people. You don't get to do that."
Cheadle, who was nominated for an Oscar for best actor for 2004's Hotel Rwanda, doesn't explicitly blame modern-day Hollywood Shuffle casting directors for the absence of a black acting nominee at the Academy Awards in 2011. But it's clear he thinks something off-color is going on. "I mean, were there any black Academy Award nominees [in 2011]? No, zero," he told the Hollywood Reporter. "Is there really a dearth of talent? Who decided that? Who do you point to and get mad at? It's hard to pin down."
While the aspiring actors in Hollywood Shuffle felt oppressed by being encouraged to "act blacker," Washington spots an opportunity in parts that others criticize. Asked about her take on Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer's roles in The Help by Allhiphop.com, she said, "What I think is that we get nervous about stereotypes in the media. But the role of the artist is to bring humanity to the project, and when we … connect to a real human experience, then that is a great opportunity for transformation."
Whitaker portrayed Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland — a serious film that was a far cry from Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. But he recently told Tavis Smiley that while African Americans in the movie business have "moved a long way," they're "not at a destination point” when it comes to self-determination in Hollywood.