Legendary filmmaker Robert Townsend’s impact on defining Black cinema is undeniable.
Dubbed The Godfather of Independent Film, Townsend began his acting career in the 1980s, a time when Hollywood was only letting in one Black actress/actor at a time. Fed up with demeaning roles and bit parts, the Chicago native decided to tell his own story, taking the reins to write, produce and direct Hollywood Shuffle, a satire film that critically analyzed the plight of Black actors trapped in dangerously stereotypical roles that persists in the industry to this day.
By bringing his own seat and building his own table, Townsend wrote himself into history, going on to direct iconic films like The Five Heartbeats, and creating the hit sitcom The Parent ‘Hood while building a legacy that has carried well into the 21st century. Now, the B*A*P*S director has teamed up with Gentleman Jack’s Real to Reel, a Q&A tour that fosters the creativity and talent of up and coming Black filmmakers. Each year, Gentleman Jack and Code Black Entertainment give one African American filmmaker the chance to win $10,000 and a trip to the American Black Film Festival where their work is showcased.
Just as he wrapped the final tour stop for Real to Reel 2019, Shadow And Act caught up with Mr. Townsend to talk about his career, some of his most cherished memories and why leaving the door open behind you is so vital.
“I think it’s a different time now,” he explained, reflecting on how Hollywood has changed since he was first breaking ground. “I think there are more filmmakers than ever of color, and they’re doing some amazing work. Back when I started with Keenen [Ivory Wayans], we were pioneers of trying to do something different. I think now, more and more people are pursuing their dreams, and I think we’re seeing some amazing work that is changing what African Americans look like and how they are perceived on the small and big screens.”
Seeing how much has shifted and changed and what still needs a great deal of work has made Townsend extremely reflective. “It’s funny because I recently finished my documentary on The Five Heartbeats [called] Making The Five Heartbeats,” he said of the 2018 film. “People love that movie. I think as an artist breaking down how a movie is made has been the most rewarding for [me] recently, because you get a chance to see my creative process, my auditions, and how I worked with actors. I love everything. I don’t have any favorites of my movies because I’ve created a lot of different things. Each of them is like my children. They’re all special. I just enjoy the process. I love it all–writing, directing, producing, editing, the whole nine.”
While The Five Heartbeats has been a fan favorite for nearly 30 years, it’s Hollywood Shuffle that continues to center Townsend. After all, it was a project that was born out of a great deal of pain. “To this day, I have to applaud and give respect to Keenen Ivory Wayans,” he explained. “I remember the day we decided that we were going to make Hollywood Shuffle. It was a big moment because we were in a lot of pain as young actors. We were being forced to play all these negative stereotypical roles. So I think that’s a pivotal moment in my career because that’s when I became a filmmaker. I became a filmmaker out of pain as opposed to like, ‘Hey, I just want to do this.’ I was like,’ No, we gotta change it.'”
Those that paved the way for The Robert Townsend Foundation founder and his own mentors are what promoted Townsend to get involved with the Real to Reel program. “I’ve had some amazing mentors in my life,” he explained. “When I think about Sidney Poitier, he was one of the first people to really speak to me on a level to say you can change the atmosphere. There was [iconic Black filmmaker] Michael Schultz. Cooley High changed my soul. So there are certain mentors that you gravitate toward that are doing something to elevate people of color. That’s what I’m all about.”
Because Townsend is so multifaceted, approaching the craft of cinema from all angles, it was essential to ask how he assessed directing, writing, and acting differently. “I love writing,” he said. “It starts with the word and ‘Do you have a great script?’ I think I tend to like being a filmmaker more than just acting. It depends on the material because, again, it’s still about quality material. So for me, if I get a well-written script, or if I’m working on something that I think is really good, that excites me about acting, because I know the words are there and the world is there and that I can go to the next level.”
Still, it’s not merely about elevation, you have to put in the work. “Always double-check the check,” Townsend laughed. “It’s kind of like with the screenplay, how many rewrites did you do? How many table reads did you do? I don’t cast my friends in any projects I work on unless they’re right for the role. You’ve always gotta be hard on the material. There was a time where it was a novelty, ‘Ooh they’re doing a Black movie?’ Now, because there’s so much content out there, people are a little kind of desensitized because it’s really saturated. Now the best material will rise to the top.”
The Black Lightning actor has seen many ebbs and flows in Hollywood, specifically in terms of the rise, suppression and then resurrection of Black storytelling in the mainstream. This time though, Townsend believes we aren’t simply riding a wave. “I think it’s a different time,” he reflected. “I think that at the end of the day, it’s about green. As long as movies are making money, Hollywood will continue to produce them and create them. Back in the day when I did The Meteor Man, I was going after $1 billion. I was like the first African American superhero. So then when I see Black Panther, and it makes $1 billion, I go, ‘I wasn’t wrong. I might’ve been before my time…’ I know that things are possible. So that is a success, there will be more. It’s just going to be about quality.”
With over 40 years in the industry, the Eddie Murphy: Raw director recognizes the legacy that he’s built for himself, but as far he’s concerned there are still many chapters ahead. “When people think of Robert Townsend, I think they think of a body of work that some people consider classic,” he revealed. “I’ve always tried to do my best. At the end of the day, whatever I create, whatever I put my hands on, I want them to see my name and know that it’s going to be something special. I think that’s part of my legacy to say, ‘That man always did great work. If he was writing, directing, producing…’ It’s about trying to raise that bar. That’s why this program with Gentleman Jack and Code Black is really important because it is encouraging and inspiring a new generation to raise the bar higher. That, to me, is what life is all about.”
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide