Bobby Taylor (Robert Townsend) is a middle class black male aspiring to become an actor. He practices his lines in the bathroom, with his younger brother Stevie (Craigus R. Johnson) watching as he plays a stereotypical “jive” character for the audition for "Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge", a movie about street gangs. Bobby's grandmother (Helen Martin) overhears the “jive talk” and shows her disapproval. His mother (Starletta DuPois), is more supportive, telling Bobby that he is going to be late for the audition. Bobby assures his mother that if he lands the part, everything will change.
After the audition, Bobby talks with his boss Mr. Jones, who questions Bobby's dedication to his restaurant, Winky Dinky Dog. A limo then pulls up and the man inside is revealed to be B.B. Sanders (Brad Sanders), who plays Batty Boy in There's a Bat in My House. Ecstatic, Bobby asks Sanders how to tell a good part. Sanders tells him that if his character does not die in the script, then it's good part. Sanders also says that it is not about art, it is about the sequel.
Bobby gets a call from his agent and learns that his audition went well, but they wanted an “Eddie Murphy-type". Regardless, Bobby gets a callback. That night, he has a nightmare in which the director (Eugene Robert Glazer), writer (Dom Irrera), and casting director (Lisa Mende) hound him to be Eddie Murphy. Waiting in line with a group of Eddie Murphy clones, Bobby starts turning into Eddie Murphy himself until he wakes up in shock.
The next day, Bobby's co-workers, Donald and Tiny, belittle Bobby's career as an actor and his constant excuses for missing work, telling him that he will never make it as an actor. Bobby quits his job.
Later that night, Bobby visits his uncle Ray and expresses his doubts in pursuing his acting career. Ray encourages Bobby to try to follow his dreams. During his callback, the director, writer, and casting director are thrilled at Bobby's performance, calling it “very black” and give him the eponymous lead role. At home, Bobby celebrates getting the part with his girlfriend Lydia, when his grandmother comes home early and the three watch a film noir. Bobby has another fantasy of him playing the lead in his own film noir, called Death of a Breakdancer.
That night, Bobby dreams of the roles that he wants to play, from a Shakespearean king, to a black superhero, to Rambo. His final dream is that of him winning his fifth Oscar.
Bobby returns to the studio the next day to start filming "Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge" with his family in the audience. Due to his overwhelming guilt of playing such a stereotypical character, Bobby quits in the middle of the shoot. With his grandmother steadfastly telling him there is work at the post office, Bobby ends the film shooting a commercial for the USPS.Robert Townsend as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring young black actor who dreams of making it big in Hollywood. Townsend was also the producer, director, and co-writer of the film. Townsend appears in his daydreaming vignettes as Jasper, the butler; Speed, the film critic; Sam Ace, private investigator; Rambro, war hero.
Anne-Marie Johnson as Lydia, Bobby's girlfriend who supports him and gives him a scarf for good luck. She also appears in the runaway slave segment of the film as Willie Mae and in Attack of the Street Pimps as a hooker.
Craigus R. Johnson as Stevie Taylor, Bobby Taylor's younger brother who admires Bobby and his career as an actor.
Helen Martin as Bobby's Grandmother. She disapproves with Bobby's willingness to depict degrading black stereotypes and would much rather him pursue a job at the post office.
Starletta DuPois as Bobby's Mother. She is supportive of Bobby even though she agrees with Bobby's Grandmother that degrading roles serve as poor examples for black youth.
David McKnight as Uncle Ray. A former singer, Uncle Ray now works at a barbershop. Bobby comes to Uncle Ray with his doubts about his acting career. Uncle Ray serves as a guiding light, telling Bobby to follow his dreams.
Keenen Ivory Wayans as Donald, Bobby's co-worker at Winky Dinky Dog. He discourages Bobby from acting and thinks that Bobby will not make it in Hollywood. Wayans also plays Jheri Curl in the film noir segment of the film.
Lou D. Washington as Tiny, another one of Bobby's co-workers who discourages him from acting.
Brad Sanders as Batty Boy, the wealthy star of the television sitcom, “There's a Bat in my House.”
John Witherspoon as Mr. Jones, Bobby's boss at Winky Dinky Dog. Tries his best to keep Bobby a steady employee but becomes exasperated by Bobby's constant need to attend auditions.
Eugene Robert Glazer as Director of Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge. He also appears in the “Black Acting School” segment as an instructor, as Amadeus in Amadeus Meets Salieri, as Chicago Jones in Chicago Jones and the Temple of Doom, and as Dirty Larry in Dirty Larry.
Lisa Mende as the Casting Director who constantly demands “more black” from the actors.
Dom Irrera as Mandrill Man Vacuum, the writer of Jivetime Jimmy's Revenge and who claims to have learned about African Americans only through film and television.
Hollywood Shuffle brings into light the lack of substantial roles for black actors and the misrepresentation of people of color in film and television. Through satire, the film is able to use negative stereotypes put out by mass media and turn them against Hollywood. The film's plot reveals the perceived racism behind the camera that has relegated black actors to take demeaning roles for money and a chance at stardom. This point is personified in the casting director's constant demand for actors to “be more black.”
The script also levels some criticism towards black actors who are willing to take demeaning roles. This is highlighted in the protest skit, when an NAACP spokesman (played by Paul Mooney) states at a press conference, "they'll never play the Rambos until they stop playing the Sambos." The film also offers an authentic glimpse into real middle-class African Americans in stark contrast to the roles they are offered in the film industry, and Bobby Taylor's final words in the movie's final scene can be seen as encouraging pride and respect in the community. With a budget of $100,000, of which $60,000 was funded from Robert Townsend's own credit cards, and grossing over $5 million over the first ten months of release, the film was a resounding independent success, propelling Townsend into stardom.
The film was generally well-received, with review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 88% of 24 professional critics have given the film a positive review, with a rating average of 6.6 out of 10. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called the film “an artistic compromise but a logistical triumph, announcing the arrival of a new talent whose next movie should really be something.” Richard Harrington of the Washington Post calls the film “a funny, poignant and technically proficient film.”
Some critics addressed Townsend's use of stereotypes as problematic in his depiction of women and homosexuality. Jami Bernard of the New York Post claims that Townsend is “passing the buck,” addressing the misrepresentation of African Americans, but maintaining stereotypes of other groups of people, such as the image of the stereotypical homosexual hairdresser. Harriet Margolis claims that “Townsend ignores gender issues, thereby weakening certain aspects of his own attack on Hollywood's misuse of stereotypes.”
1987 Deauville Film FestivalGrand Special Prize (Critics Award) — Robert Townsend (winner)
1988 Independent Spirit AwardsBest First Feature — Carl Craig, Robert Townsend (Nominated)