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‘American Fiction’ Filmmaker Cord Jefferson Talks to Robert Townsend, Who Went There First With ‘Hollywood Shuffle’

Photographs: Getty Images, Everett Collection; Collage: Gabe Conte

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American Fiction, writer-director Cord Jefferson's feature debut, has drawn favorable comparisons to similar classic films that tackle the way Black entertainment is perceived and commodified by white gatekeepers, like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. But for those who know, the most immediate reference point for Jefferson’s tale of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison (Jeffrey Wright)— a whipsmart writer who only makes headway in the book industry when he dumbs down to write a cheesy “hood” drama—is Robert Townsend’s seminal 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle.

Townsend wrote the film, his directorial debut, with a pre-In Living Color Keenen Ivory Wayans, in reaction to the trials they both faced as up-and-coming Black actors. But where others would’ve found the experience demoralizing, Townsend, alongside Wayans, leaned into the absurdity of it all, and out of the indignities, birthed a scathing, but also warm, joyous and hilarious satire of the Black Hollywood experience that still feels relevant nearly 40 years later.

While Jefferson’s film is more directly an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel Erasure, he's been open about the impact Townsend’s film had on him at an early age. As American Fiction continues to gain awards steam, to the tune of five Academy Award nominations, GQ put Robert Townsend and his “cinematic son,” as he refers to Cord, together to compare and contrast their different but ultimately very similar approaches to satirizing Hollywood, the state of Black entertainers in the industry today, and how to move forward after a seminal debut in an industry that likes to flatten creativity.

GQ: Cord, what was your first experience like when you came across Hollywood Shuffle?

Cord Jefferson: I was probably about 9 or 10 when I first saw it. And the thing that really spoke to me is, when you're [that age], that's right in the window of learning about the origins of this country, learning about slavery, learning about the Civil Rights movement. And the ways in which they teach you those things in this country are, you watch a lot of movies. So I remember watching this documentary called Eyes on the Prize in class, and Mississippi Burning, about the three civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi. And I like those movies, but they're essentially horror movies. You're watching real photos of Freedom Riders getting their heads beat in, cops putting dogs on people. Mississippi Burning, you're watching Klan members burn down people's homes. You're watching people get lynched. I had nightmares for weeks after watching that film.

And then one day, I turned on this movie called Hollywood Shuffle, and I realized, Oh, these guys are talking about racism, but they're talking about it in a way that intends to make you laugh. Every scene is intended to make you laugh. I definitely didn't know what the word satire meant, but there was this revelation that there's more than one way to build empathy and there's more than one way to talk about this stuff. And you don't have to talk about it in a self-serious, super dramatic, painful, terrifying way, you can talk about it and make people laugh, and you can build empathy that way.

And not only that, but you can also help the people who are going through this find some joy in the struggle and find some joy in the misery, and remind people that yes, despite the hardships, it's important to laugh and it's important to find joy. And so to me, I think that Hollywood Shuffle is probably the... I don't know if it's the first piece of satire that I saw, but I certainly know it's the first piece of satire that had an effect on me. And I think that that effect became profound for me, and I started seeking out that kind of stuff throughout the rest of my life. And I think that there's honestly a direct line between me seeing Hollywood Shuffle, and me being drawn to the novel Erasure and making American Fiction.

Robert, as a veteran now, is that a familiar story you hear from other Black artists in similar positions as Cord—that idea of Hollywood Shuffle being this touchstone or reference point?

Robert Townsend: When you make a movie, you release the movie to the world. And Keenen and I, we were just being true to ourselves. We love everybody, but we felt like with Hollywood Shuffle, there was this injustice, and we were auditioning for these roles, and we were put in a box. But we found it funny. "Oh, you go to that audition today?" Like, "Oh, yeah, they wanted you to be the slave? Yeah, man." I remember every character always had a Black name—like, "Boot, get over here." Like, "Man, did you read for Licorice? I read for Boot too." [laughs]

“Licorice” is outrageous.

Townsend: It was always these Black names. “8-Ball.” And it always was funny to me, because they always had the snitch, and the snitch was in a pool hall. And this dude was really smart, he was like, [adopts high-pitched snitch voice] "Dude you looking for is on the third floor, baby." He's got the Wall Street Journal in his hand: "You need some tips?" And I'm like, "If this dude is so smart, why is he in a pool hall?"

When I looked at American Fiction, I was like, "Cord is my cinematic son." Because sometimes, you plant seeds and you hope that somebody will go like, "Oh, these are breadcrumbs, and the future is over there." Because a lot of this stuff is so heavy, they call it trauma porn, which I really believe is what it is, because after you see it, you become desensitized.

I've always looked at cinema, movie making, television, as planting seeds. I planted a seed with Hollywood Shuffle, and I wanted to say something with the film, and I think we did, but I never knew what people would take away. So to hear that he was this little kid that saw it and that he was able to go, "Oh, there is another way." It doesn't have to be the heavy-handed, [adopts dramatic voice] "Y’all can’t lynch my family," that thing. There's some comedy in there. So when I saw American Fiction, I laughed my butt off, I am not going to lie.

And when I found out this is his first film, I was like, "Get out of here!" I watch movies all the time. So when they sent it to me, I started laughing and then I was like, "This ain't no first." This dude is a seasoned professional, what the hell? Who is he? Cord is built for this, so it's not a surprise. But I just feel blessed that something that I created stimulated something in his brain somewhere.

Townsend in September 1987 at the Deauville American Film Festival, where Hollywood Shuffle won the Critics' Award.

Robert Townsend

Townsend in September 1987 at the Deauville American Film Festival, where Hollywood Shuffle won the Critics' Award.
Photo 12/Getty Images

So there's also this other element to it, where there is the underlying implication that, given the time between these two movies, some things have changed and some things sadly haven’t, right? Jeffrey’s character is in the literary field, but it's still very reflective of the film industry as well, and the archetypes and boxes that they try to put us into. So what was it like for you, Robert, to watch something like American Fiction and see that it’s reflecting issues you faced almost 40 years ago?

Townsend: Well, the game continues. We still need more balance. There's more movies, more television shows starring people of color, but then there is, I believe, a divide, where the quality isn't there, to me, the bar. And it's what gets through. A lot of writers are still going through that. A lot of people are still going through, "Can you bring me something with a character like this?” He's got to be from the hood. “Can he [be] just out of jail?" So when I look at [American Fiction], the film is covered with love, because at the end of the day, it's about where we are, and you don't have to be heavy-handed.

There's still gangster shows and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And when I look at the movies that come out, we never play on this kind of canvas. So I think there are movies that break through and then there's movies that are part of that same canvas. I want to see more movies that are painted like this, that are smart, that are funny, that are saying things. Jeffrey Wright's performance is so subtle and nuanced and he's just smooth with it. It's like a brother that has lived in the literary world his entire life and he knows the game.

And so when he goes like, "Oh, that's what they're buying"—we see it all the time in the industry, where they go, "That one got greenlit. Oh, they greenlit that?" And then it comes out and we go, "Okay, there was nothing new that we discovered here, but it was somebody's appetite that got satisfied by that film, but it wasn't for me." So I just think that every now and then, we have films that are a reminder of where are we? Where are we as artists? Where are we as artists of color?

Jefferson: Hollywood Shuffle came out in '87. So, wow, 37 years ago this year. And Erasure, the book that I adapted, came out 23 years ago this year. So we had a Black woman who auditioned for the film, she was in her seventies, and before the audition, they asked her "Do you have anything you want to ask Cord?" She said, "No, I just want to tell him something: I can't believe they're letting you make this movie."

I said, "What do you mean?" And she said, "I've been working in this industry for more than half a century, and these are the conversations that I have been having with people for just as long. We've been talking about this."

The themes of the film are not new. Which is a little heartbreaking, right? This rigid restriction as to what people think Black life looks like is not a new thing—which is sad, that it still feels timely in the year 2024.

But what I did need to shift a little bit, what I updated from the novel is that in the novel, the publishers and the film producer who are interested in Monk’s work are far more, I would say, predatory. They see dollar signs and that's about it. The thing that I needed to shift a little bit is that in the film, [those characters] believe that what they're doing is morally right, their heart is in the right place. They're saying, "Well, I'm telling Black stories—isn't that what you want? I'm an ally." That's why we hung up the Ruth Bader Ginsburg posters on the publisher's wall. It's like, this is a woman who clearly has this liberal bent, and believes that her heart is in the right place. And she's blinded by the fact that there's still some prejudice here. There's still some bias that you are not seeing, there's a blind spot that you have. The [white producers and publishers] in the film are, I would say, the kind of liberal who puts up the black square on Instagram and they're like, "I did my part."

Both of your films also kind of achieve this meta element too, of succeeding with white audiences... I was telling Robert, my dad said he saw Hollywood Shuffle with a big group of his white co-workers and they're cracking up at all the jokes essentially taking the piss out of them. Is that a funny needle to thread when you're making a film like this and then playing it for the audience that it's kind of satirizing?

Townsend: Well, at the end of the day, it's all about a universal theme. Yes, I'm looking at it through the lens of people of color, but Italian actors are all up for mobster [roles], Asian actors [can relate]—so everyone is put in a box. Over the years, there's been so many different actors that come up and they go, "Man, I've been in a box, and your film made me want to make a movie," or, "I saw myself even though I'm not Black." I grew up on classic comedy, I go back to the Sid Caesar Show. One of my favorite directors is Billy Wilder. And there's a certain humanity that was in [his films], that even though I don't know that world, it made me laugh. When I think about Elia Kazan, who made one of my favorite films, A Face in the Crowd, he was able to say something in a very funny way and he had layers to it. And so for me, starting out as a comedian, I go, "Is this a joke just for Black people? Is this joke for white people? Is this just a joke for men?" And when Keenen and I were working on Hollywood Shuffle, we were like, "These are universal jokes that everybody can [relate to]..." If you got a brain in your head, you're not going to go like, "I'm mad at that joke." It's like, "Oh my God, that is funny. He's running away and now there's a Black acting school," and then the instructors are teaching these brothers how to do it. And that's really what happened to me, because there was a cat that was telling me, [adopts British voice] "No, no, no you get out of the Cadillac and you pimp-slap her."

That actually happened?

Townsend: This really happened. That's where [the Hollywood Shuffle skit] “Black Acting School” comes from. Because this guy was a director from England doing some pimp movie— [back to British accent] "And you say to Shondaquandaniqua—you get out of the Cadillac, she's holding out on you, you want your paper." And I just remember he was telling me how to be black, he was like, "Walk like this. You're a bad MOFO." And I was doing it.

And so we just found the universal comedy that, if you went on the ride with us, you would genuinely appreciate. But [Townsend's Hollywood Shuffle character] Bobby Taylor gives us hope. We added that little bit of heart.

I'd imagine both of you experienced similar situations, where Cord, after you won the Emmy and especially now, and Robert, after you put Hollywood Shuffle out and then you went and directed Eddie Murphy: Raw, I'm sure you got offers from studios to make the very kind of things that you were satirizing, right?

Jefferson: Oh, man, the incoming calls after this have been amazing. It makes me wonder, have you watched the film? Things have gotten better. I'm an optimist, in that I think that incremental change is change and we should acknowledge that. And so things have gotten better, absolutely, but we've still got a long way to go until there's equity. And it's not until we are actually getting the breadth and depth of stories that other people have, and I think that that is just the reality. And so, yeah, I am thankful for the incoming calls. I always appreciate people thinking of me. But, yeah, it’s a lot of, Do you want to talk about the first Black toothbrush maker?

And I'm like, "That's great, I'm happy for that Black person"—but white people don't have to make movies about icons all the time. White people just get to make movies about dudes, about women just living their lives. They don't need to be seen as these massive historical figures, it's enough that it's just like, this is just a person, and it's okay to just be a person, and this person has an interesting life too. The slave stuff comes in, the Black person murdered by the police thing comes in…

But even the ones that are like, "Well, this is celebratory, this is triumphant. Don't you want to acknowledge this person from history?” And it's like, I'm happy for that person from history, but why do the Black movies have to be about the special of the special? The cream of the crop? Why can't it just be about a guy? Why can't it just be about a woman? Why can't it just be about somebody living their life and the struggles that they go through not being the sort of first Black X? That to me is the question that I always have and it's still one that really plagues the industry. This is an industry that still has a difficult time thinking, "Could we just talk about these people as human beings, as opposed to..."

A question that people have asked me is, "Do you think you could have made this movie when the book came out in 2001?" And I think that's an interesting thought experiment, but something else that I think is, like, I wonder if this movie could have been made if it didn't have the satirical stuff, it was just about the Black family. Could I have gotten made if it was just about Black people living their lives? Could I have told that story? I don't know if that movie could have been funded, I really don't, unfortunately.

Comparing the two endings—Cord, your film ends on more of a wry, almost can't-beat ‘em-join-’em note.

Jefferson: Yeah, I think that the ending is a little bittersweet. To me, the journey that Monk has been through is one in which he realizes this is a systemic issue and that this is an institutional issue. And this idea that he had at the beginning of the film, which is that artists like Sintara Golden are what's wrong with the world, he's realizing that his anger is misguided and that he's directing it at the wrong people. He's directing his frustration at other individual artists and not the entire institution that exists, that has existed for generations before these artists were even born.

He realizes he needs to play the game if he wants to get the movie made. But the sweetness is coming out and realizing that his brother's there, and ultimately that he has found his way back to this foundational relationship in his life. That, to me, is the real love story of the film, between the brothers. I love non-romantic love stories, I think that those are important in movies, and I think that this is a movie that's about feeling love.

You know what the craziest thing is, too? I had not seen Hollywood Shufflle in a minute before I made the movie. And then, after you and I did the AFI Q&A, Robert, I went home because my nephew was in the audience, and my nephew had never seen Hollywood Shuffle, and I was like, "Oh, we're going home directly to watch Hollywood Shuffle after this." And I had forgotten about the meta post-office ending, I truly had.

And it gave me goosebumps to watch it. I was like, "This movie is so burrowed down into my brain that I had forgotten this." And I wonder somewhere in the creation of my movie, was that sort of ending somewhere in my psyche? It was truly astonishing. And what a perfect ending for that movie. My God, man, it is so wonderful.

Townsend: Thank you.

Townsend with Keenen Ivory Wayans in 1987

Close Up Robert Townsend Et Keenen Ivory Wayans

Townsend with Keenen Ivory Wayans in 1987
Pool DENIZE/PELLETIER/Getty Images

Robert, having made that movie back in '87, how does it feel to see the changes that the industry has gone through now? I think about some of the stuff that you probably experienced—one thing that comes up often is people talking about the era when networks like The WB and Fox had a lot of Black sitcoms, like your show Parent ‘Hood, and then cycled those out for shows like Dawson's Creek. So when we get here, in the 2020s, how does it feel to weigh the pros and cons of our progress within the industry?

Townsend: Well, here's the thing, we have made a lot of progress. There are more showrunners [of color], more creatives [of color] than ever. There are people of color running the studios. Orion, which produced American Fiction, is run by a woman of color. But I still think there's... Okay, so I vote for the Academy, right? So we get the list of movies, let’s say 386 movies were made. I go through the list and I look at all the movies, and then out of that crop, there are maybe 25 movies that everybody will be talking about. And then I look at all the films of color, like, "Okay, how many black movies were made?"

And then how many were painted on a different canvas? Not many. And then I go, "Is there a quality control problem?" So I think about Hollywood Shuffle and I know we planted a lot of seeds, because the film continues to play, [and] actors talk about, "Man, I went to an audition and the line was right out of Hollywood Shuffle, and the casting director didn't even know.”

And so the beautiful thing about films is that once they're out there, people continue to watch them and new ideas are planted. And it's funny, because I didn't even think about it until you're talking about the ending of Hollywood Shuffle and American Fiction, because there is that relationship with his brother, because then it's like, "We are in this together."

And let me just say this too, about the journey, because Cord, right now, this is the moment. This is a beautiful moment. When I was having my moment, you get every script in the world. and everybody goes, “This one, this one, this one!"

And the real deal is that a lot of the stuff doesn't resonate with you, because you created something that you were passionate about. And I said no and I continue to say no to stuff, because at the end of the day, you better love. If you're going to spend two years on a movie, you better love that movie, because if you take the check and it's not the right thing, that's the little scary part. If you say, "Well, yeah, I think I could do an epic movie about Buckwheat [from the Little Rascals]” and sell your soul… right now, with you, Cord, the world is yours now, so it's like, how do you move? How are you going to move?

Because you got the gift and now it's like, well, what is your body of work going to look like going forward? And that's the little crazy part, because you made the movie and you knew what you wanted to say. And yeah, there's people in your ear, but at the end of the day... When I watched the film, I was like, you have a steady hand with the material, with the actors. Jeffrey Wright was so pliable, everybody was pliable in your hands, they had never— even Leslie Uggams—they had never been better. So now my only thing is, can we get more of that? More of whatever's in your brain, authentic, true to you, on the next canvas? Because Hollywood's going to offer you everything and then you got to go, "I don't want to do that," and [someone will say], "So you don't want to do this movie about the Pimp Man?"

Originally Appeared on GQ