How few opportunities were for black filmmakers when Robert Townsend and Keenen Ivory Wayans came up with the idea of Hollywood mix in the mid 1980s? Townsend, who had a strong acting career at the time and planned to direct and star in To mix togetherdidn’t even consider pitching it to major film industry studios.
“There weren’t any movies made by filmmakers of color back then,” Townsend, 66, now tells us as his favorite 1987 comedy gets a new expanded Blu-ray release from The Criterion Collection. “There was a drought… The idea of [a Black filmmaker] making a film was no longer in the ether. It wasn’t in the air.
Indeed, while the 1970s saw revolutionary movie star Sidney Poitier step behind the camera, the Blaxploitation movement spawned the likes of Melvin Van Peebles (Baadassss song by Sweet Sweetback) and Gordon Parks (TREE), and UCLA graduate Charles Burnett (sheep killer) spurring LA’s rebellion, the ’80s marked at least two steps backwards for black directors.
Opportunities for action were also not plentiful. While Townsend felt he had scored a major break by landing a role in Norman Jewison’s World War II drama in 1984, A soldier’s story starring Denzel Washington, this hardly guaranteed future work. “The film changes my life,” he says. “We are nominated for three Oscars. I say to my agent: “I want to make more films like this”. My agent says, ‘Robert, they only do one film noir a year. You did it. Be happy.’ And then that’s where the filmmaker was born.
Townsend and Wayans, then-best friends performing at The Improv in New York in the late ’70s, wrote Hollywood mixa cutting-edge, cutting-edge satire of what it meant to be black in film in the 1980s. “We audition for all those bad roles, you know, hustlers, pimps, runaway slaves, and illiterate basketball players,” Townsend said.
Hollywood mix would star Townsend as Bobby Taylor, an aspiring actor who longs to give up his minimum-wage job at a hot dog stand. Bobby finally gets a big role – but has to come to terms with the fact that it’s in a stereotypical cartoonish project called Jivetime Jimmy’s Revenge where his character’s dialogue consists of lines like “I don’t have a weapon!”
Determined to direct the film himself, but well aware that Hollywood would never finance it, Townsend financed the film himself. “I took out my savings at the time – $60,000 from the bank,” he says. He maxed out his credit cards and borrowed more from friends to cover the rest of the film’s $100,000 cost, which he memorably used as plea in the film’s trailer.
Then the real work began. “Hollywood mix was like my film school,” says Townsend, who continues to direct today but is also a tenured professor in the University of Southern California’s premier film program. “I was the co-writer. I was the star of the movie. I was the director. I was the main producer, the main finance guy. I drove the camera truck. I worked in the craft service [catering]. I cleaned up after everyone left. So I learned all the disciplines in the process of making the film.
The film took 12 days to shoot, but 2.5 years to edit, mostly because Townsend kept running out of money. Once he had a finished print, Townsend showed it to Samuel Goldwyn Jr. (the son of legendary movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn), who bought it for distribution to the company that shared his name. Townsend immediately demanded the check. “I said, ‘I billed the film on credit cards and the bills are due,'” Townsend recalled. “But I said, ‘I don’t want people to know [that] because they will think the film is cheap. And he says, ‘No, no, no, no, no. It’s history. We should tell everyone how you have been so diligent and understood. And that became the hook of the film.
Released on March 20, 1987, Hollywood mix earned largely positive reviews from critics – including Siskel and Ebert, the beloved and bickering cinematic arbiters who are also spoofed in one of Hollywood mixthe famous thumbnails. They compared Townsend to Spike Lee, who had emerged from Brooklyn a year earlier with his critically darling debut She must have it.
The film also grossed over $5 million at the box office, a heck of a return on Townsend’s investment in itself.
“I was on the cover of magazines on TV every night,” he says. “I have traveled the world. I went to France, England, Germany and Norway. A short film made with a credit card took me around the world several times. It changed my life forever to this day.
And Townsend helped change the face of Hollywood with an enduring comedy classic that blasted Hollywood for its deficient portrayal of black people on screen. Even though it took decades of incremental progress and recent racial reckoning to see real sea change and the fruit of his labor.
“I think a lot of things have changed,” says Townsend, who went on to act and direct films The five heartbeats (1991) and Meteor Man (1993) and now mainly works in television (The Last OG, The Wonder Years, The Best Man: The Final Chapters). “I mean, we’re miles from where we were in 1982, 1983. There’s people of color in the lead roles, the showrunners, the writers, the directors, the producers, the cast [directors]frames.
“We are not fully aware. It’s not like ‘It’s okay now! It’s done! The civil rights movement is over! I think there is still work to be done. But I think we are better than we were.
Hollywood mix: The Criterion Collection is now available on Amazon.