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The entertainment industry has long had its fair share of multi-hyphenates – artists who write, direct, produce and/or act.  Some that instantly come to mind are the likes of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Ben Affleck, Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, Tyler Perry, George Clooney, Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner, to name a few. This […]



The entertainment industry has long had its fair share of
multi-hyphenates – artists who write, direct, produce and/or act.  Some that instantly come to mind are the likes
of Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Spike Lee, Ben Affleck, Woody Allen, Warren
Beatty, Tyler Perry, George Clooney, Tim Robbins and Kevin Costner, to name a
few.


This year, the 2014 Milwaukee Film Festival is screening the
feature directorial debut of a multi-hyphenate with decades of industry
experience under his belt, and whose name more than deserves to be mentioned in
the same trailblazing company of all the aforementioned filmmakers:
Robert Townsend.


With 42 acting credits, 35 directing credits, 25 producing
credits and 16 writing credits to his name (and counting), the versatile Townsend
has quietly amassed quite an impressive résumé over a nearly 40-year career in
front of and behind the scenes. Equally adept at comedy and drama, he’s worked
with the likes of Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett, Alfre Woodard, Ving
Rhames, Kevin Costner, Whoopi Goldberg, Loretta Devine, Andre Braugher, Charles
S. Dutton, Beyoncé Knowles and Bill Cosby.


Townsend, a Chicago native, will be in town as a special
guest of the festival tonight, Friday, Oct. 3, to screen his now-classic entertainment
industry satire, Hollywood Shuffle (1987) at 7 p.m. at the historic Oriental
Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.). He will take part in a Q&A session that will
immediately follow the screening.


Hollywood
Shuffle
is a semi-autobiographical take on Townsend’s
struggles as a young actor trying to make a name for himself in 1980’s Hollywood.
His character, Bobby Taylor, is a classically-trained black actor who can’t get
a break due to small-minded industry people, not to mention the the scarcity of
non-stereotypical roles available. You were either the token black guy in the
office cubicle or the jive-talkin’ criminal. Anne-Marie Johnson, Keenen Ivory
Wayans (who co-wrote the film’s script with Townsend) and John Witherspoon co-star.


Townsend, the chief creative and financial force behind Hollywood
Shuffle
, which is showing as part of the festival’s inaugural Black
Lens program, admits to being honored when he received word that the festival
wanted to hold a special screening of his shrewdly-executed film debut which he
also self-financed.


“As a filmmaker, I know that there have been so many films
made in the years since,” he said. “With that in mind, for someone to consider
one of my films a classic, my first film no less, is an honor. Twenty-seven
years later, I get to have another premiere and a party! It’s great! I’m glad
that the film has held up as well as it has.”


The Black Lens program was born out of a desire to better
serve an underserved fraction within the greater-Milwaukee populace: black
moviegoers.


Last year, Milwaukee native George Tillman Jr. was a
festival honoree. Two of his films, The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete
(2013) with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, and Notorious (2009), the latter
a big screen biopic about slay East Coast gangsta rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
(played by newcomer Jamal Woolard), screened the first weekend of the 2013 festival
and brought out lots of black moviegoers. After those early screenings, they stopped
coming. Festival organizers took notice and the Black Lens program, curated by
Geraud Blanks and Donte McFadden was born.


Shot entirely on film, in 17 days, over a two-and-a half-year
period for $100,000 ($40,000, or 40 percent, of which was cobbled together by Townsend
voluntarily maxing out several of his own credit cards), the micro-budgeted film
was picked up for distribution by Samuel Goldwyn Films.


The studio wisely used Townsend’s then-unique financing
method to promote the film — a call he was initially against — however the
gamble paid off.


The film went onto gross approximately $6 million
domestically, establishing it as one of the most profitable self-financed films
ever made. It also received glowing reviews upon its release, including a pair
of 4-star reviews from the late Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert of “Siskel &
Ebert.”


“When I was making the movie all those years ago now, I was
just a baby,” he said. “It’s so funny, now all sorts of people are making
movies and web series and other kinds of content on their own dime or others’
dime. Back then, Spike [Lee] had made She’s Gotta Have It (1986), and then
I was doing Hollywood Shuffle. It was considered a bold move.  Like,[affecting a valley guy accent] ‘You’re
gonna make a movie?! OH MY GOD!’”


Even Townsend is amazed by how often he’s approached about
the film from fans in the 27 years since its original theatrical release, many
of whom weren’t even alive or were young children at that time.  “I routinely hear from younger actors and
filmmakers that didn’t know what the film was about when they were first
introduced to it,” he shared, “but get it now since they’re going through some
of the exact same things depicted in the film.”


Townsend confirmed that he shot the entire movie on free leftover
film stock that he acquired prior to making Hollywood Shuffle.


“Everything nowadays is shot digitally,” he said. “However,
back then everything was shot on film. So let’s say you shot a 6-minute scene
with a 10-minute load of film, you’d be left with four minutes of unused film
stock. Before we started filming, I had made a film called A Soldier’s Story (1984) with
Denzel Washington, Adolph Caeser and Harold Rollins. When that movie was over
with, I wanted to get to work on my own movie, and they gave me the leftover
film. Norman Jewison, the director of A Soldier’s Story said, ‘Here’s 2-minutes
of film, here’s 3-minutes, here’s 4-minutes.’ I took all of that film and
started to make Hollywood Shuffle.”


Hollywood
Shuffle
screens tonight, Friday,
Oct. 3 at 7  p.m.at the historic Oriental Theatre (2230 N. Farwell Ave.) as part
of the Milwaukee Film Festival’s inaugural Black Lens program. Filmmaker Robert
Townsend and co-star Bobby McGee will be in attendance. A post-screening
Q&A session is scheduled. Tickets are: adults: $10, seniors (60+) and students (with valid ID): $9, and Milwaukee Film
members: $8.



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