Issue #23: Hollywood Shuffle and Woosung

And they were roommates...

Simone Polanen

Did ya miss me?

Of course you did, you horny little freaks. I missed you too! And thank you for your patience. I am so happy to be reemerging from the depths of my increasingly-functional-yet-ultimately-still-very-present-depression-anxiety-combo-meal to bring you some words of… I was gonna say wisdom but that doesn’t feel right. Words of… brilliance, maybe? Genius? Transcendence?

In any case, I’m returning to the HIGHBROW/LOWBROW gospel FOR THIS WEEK ONLY. We’re still not in a place where we’re adhering to “schedules” and “deadlines” or “holding ourselves accountable” so don’t get your hopes up. Let us just rejoice that we are here now and sneaking a moment of joy into our day.

HIGHBROW

This week’s HIGHBROW is a bit of a shocker because it is of a generally LOWBROW genre: Black comedy. Not “black comedy” as in “tragicomedy,” but capital-B Black comedy, as in comedy made by Black people, about Black people. 

I say it’s a famously LOWBROW genre because… okay, I’m just gonna say it: Tyler Perry has dominated that niche in recent years and… Madea… is… not… highbrow. I’m not saying she can’t be, I’m not even saying I don’t like her—I have seen more than one Madea film IN THEATERS—I’m just saying she exists in the LOWBROW universe. But this is literally not about Madea at all. And I respect Tyler Perry so much. In fact, I cried at Architectural Digest’s tour of his Atlanta studio lot. I mean, if seeing a sound stage named after Halle Berry doesn’t move you…

But again, this is not about any of this. THIS is about Robert Townsend’s 1987 opus Hollywood Shuffle. And she is a HIGHBROW film because I watched her on the Criterion Channel. And that shit is highbrow as fuck.

In brief, Hollywood Shuffle is the story of Bobby Taylor, a young Black man trying to make it as a Hollywood actor. Bobby is played by Robert Townsend, who also wrote, directed, and produced the film all while being in his late twenties (which I do take as a personal attack). The film opens with Bobby preparing for his audition in a movie called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge. I feel like you get where this is going. Bobby is a Black actor in Hollywood in the eighties, famously even worse than already quite bad present-day Hollywood. He reads from a script that’s “mothafucka” this and “brotha man” that. And he grapples with the guilt of feeding the stereotype machine while also wanting to be a star. And thank god this movie is funny because honestly it is also very painful to see how little Hollywood has changed since the EIGHTIES (again, famously a BAD time).

Townsend is an incredibly charming actor. Watching him transform from a skinny, loveable, everyman-type to a jive-talking “street thug” is awkward and funny. There’s so much discomfort and desperation in his performance. He also bears a striking resemblance to Beverly Hills Cop era Eddie Murphy, something that comes up quite a bit throughout the film. But where Townsend’s genius lies is in his experimentation with format. The film is essentially a string of awful auditions interspersed with sketch comedy. And I know that sounds crazy, and it really shouldn’t work, but that shit REALLY works.

There’s one sketch in particular that continues to haunt me. It’s a commercial for “Black Acting School,” where Black graduates from Julliard and Yale School of Drama learn how to perfect certain characters, such as “slave butler” and “gang leader” in classes like “Jive Talk 101” and “Shuffling 200.” And let me tell you, this really hit home, because back when I was a theater kid with aspirations of being a professional actor, I went through an extended period of stress because I couldn’t do an “African accent.” Keep in mind, this was circa 2006, the year of Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. I tried so hard to nail it and just couldn’t. How was I ever going to play the wife and/or girlfriend of an African king and/or dictator and/or war criminal? And I’d like to look back and be like, “haha, silly little 2006 Simone. You don’t need to do an African accent to be a successful Black actor in Hollywood!” But truthfully, I’m more like, “2006 Simone, you dumb bitch. If you had stuck to your guns, you could’ve been in Black Panther! You could be frenching Daniel Kaluuya right now!” (Yes, Daniel Kaluuya is the hot one in Black Panther, no further questions). So yeah, I laughed at the sketch, even if some of those laughs sounded more like “hahahahhahahahahahaha… hahahahaha… haha...ha………….. fuck.”

When watching Hollywood Shuffle, it’s immediately obvious how much the film influenced future generations of Black comedians. Chappelle Show is Hollywood Shuffle but make it raunchy. Key & Peele is Hollywood Shuffle but make it accessible to White guys in basketball shorts and Nike slides. It remains relevant in its subject matter (yas queen racism will live forever slay hunty!!!!) and powers through with a voice that still feels fresh, inventive, original, and honestly, unusually nuanced when put against contemporary social commentary films. 

(It is maybe rivaled only by this truly bonkerino plotline from Lifetime’s Dance Moms. I don’t think I’ve ever watched anything so triggering. And that’s sadly not a joke). 

A HIGHBROW that is funny and highly watchable doesn’t come around often, so I urge you to seek this one out on an upcoming cozy weekend evening in (or weekday morning — I’m not here to judge). Hollywood Shuffle is miraculously available for FREE in its ENTIRETY on YouTube. What the actual fuck. Hooray, but also that is so disrespectful. Someone call the film police.

LOWBROW

You already know what time it is, fam. It’s K-Pop-o-clock, my chingus. And this week, we’re celebrating Woosung and his song FACE.

I honestly don’t know much about Woosung. He’s in a band called The Rose. He dropped a solo EP this summer. He’s a cutie pie. That’s about the extent of my knowledge.

Actually, I do know one more thing. His song FACE is good and catchy and has an awesome music video. I have no jokes for this kid. He’s freakin’ killing it.

Go watch FACE. And yeah, that’s it for LOWBROW. I said I’d write the newsletter, but I never said I’d write it WELL. 

***

That wraps up another slap-dash issue of HIGHBROW/LOWBROW. 

I just want to say this: At the end of the day, don’t let my ramblings distract from the works linked. They’re good works, Brent. Hollywood Shuffle and FACE really are quite excellent and they both bring me lots of joy. And ultimately, that’s my goal with this newsletter. I’m here to share the wealth.

Thank you for reading! I hope this brought you some joy. And if you feel like sharing this newsletter with someone, you can help me in spreading that joy. This baby is built on organic growth. Don’t keep me a secret!

I’ll see you again at some point in the future. But sooner rather than later!

Always love <3

xoxo,

Simone