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

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 Keenan 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.

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