Thinking back to our discussion last week around Freedom Cry, and the accompanying discussion of films like 12 Years a Slave, I found myself thinking about the representation of black characters across these forms of media. Specifically the tension inherent in narratives that are sympathetic to their black characters, but might be open to criticism that they ultimately support the stereotypes that they are ostensibly subverting. This isn’t to say that that critique is accurate or deserved, but I’ve felt like it’s something that I at least need to wrestle with when I watch them. And that view has in part been informed by an underseen but known-to-those-who-know film from 1987 called Hollywood Shuffle.
Hollywood Shuffle, at its most basic, tells the story of a young actor trying to book a small part in a movie in the 80s, but the film is really about his identity as a black actor, and how that complicates his desire to find success in Hollywood. It is filled with pointed dialogue and vignettes that articulate that struggle. Characters at auditions talk about being not considered “black enough,” others are “too black.” Actors who are well trained and practiced are turned away, and most importantly these black actors are keenly aware of their exploitation and the personal pain that comes from being forced to play demeaning stereotypes in order to make ends meet. The protagonist, Bobby Taylor, is hoping against hope to land a role as “Jimmy,” a heavily stereotyped character dealing with other thugs and pimps. Over the course of the film he comes to feel that this is too demeaning, in part because of his experience with black actors being typecast as certain things.
As you can see, the idea of black actors being typecast as slaves has been around for decades. I don’t believe that Townsend, the writer and director of Hollywood Shuffle is suggesting that narratives of slavery can’t or shouldn’t be explored, and certainly 12 Years a Slave is more significant than most because it’s based on an original document written by a man who lived as a slave, but that doesn’t necessarily make it immune from the critique found in Hollywood Shuffle. Additionally, it allows a majority white liberal (liberal in the classical sense, not “contemporary American Democrat”) audience to conceive of the imprisonment of black bodies and institutional violence against black lives as a thing of the past, something that Abraham Lincoln fixed with the stroke of a pen 150 years ago.
Solomon Northup is safely returned home at the end of the story, there is emotional closure. Consider also the violently satisfying slave narrative of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, highly successful and celebrated for it’s slave protagonist and cathartic imagined ending wherein Django takes up arms against, well, almost everybody and wipes out almost an entire plantation’s worth of people.
Satisfying as it may be, Django is lauded again and again as a “one in 10,000 [man].” This is underlined in that film by Leonardo DiCaprio’s showstopping scene in the middle of the film where, over dinner, he articulate’s the eugenicist’s view of slaves as subhuman, as evidenced by his wholly fabricated assessment of a skull. The problem with this very popular scene in the film is that it’s never disproven within the narrative of the film. DiCaprio questions why the slaves don’t simply rise up and kill their masters, and this is presented as evidence of their inferiority. That claim is never addressed again, and Django’s own assessment of himself as better and more significant somehow than other slaves and former slaves implicitly backs up the claim.
As much as Freedom Cry has interesting mechanics such as the slave hunters to place you in the mindset of having a black body, his narrative place essentially fits the same template as Django. He is selected for greatness, and so stands apart. Even in his own story of liberation he doesn’t stick around to fully liberate others since it doesn’t benefit him personally, much like Django’s only goal in slaughtering the slavemasters is freeing his wife. These narratives are satisfying, but they run the risk of relegating these stories to the past, and make no attempt to connect them to the present. Hollywood Shuffle touches on the history of limiting black actors to these kinds of roles, and while these newer films (and to an extent games) are certainly great opportunities for these actors and their success undoubtedly makes these histories more well known and hopefully better understood, the fact remains that a really great slave character is still a slave character, and doesn’t exactly address that the ramifications of this history are as present as they ever have been.
If the clip above piqued your interest at all, Frost has a copy of Hollywood Shuffle on DVD and I highly recommend you track it down.