Robert Townsend is a legend. The actor, comedian, writer, and director opened the door, in the early 90’s, for Black filmmakers (then and now) creating a bridge in Hollywood at a time when most thought it was unbridgeable.
Best known for directing the classic films “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987) and “Eddie Murphy Raw” (1987) to name just a few examples of his work. He started his career on the stage and earned his reputation as a stand-up comic, having appeared on “The Tonight Show” starring (the late) Johnny Carson.
But it was Townsend’s (now classic) film “The Five Heartbeats,” made in 1991, that really made Hollywood stop and listen.
To describe Townsend as passionate is correct but when you break down everything he achieved despite the massive obstacles that the Hollywood film industry placed in his way (and they did) he would fit—perfectly—under the title of superhero.
Townsend broke rules. A rebel with a true purpose and in his new documentary —“Making The Five Heartbeats”—he chronicles his journey without sugar coating the events. It’s raw and that’s what makes the film truly beautiful. What Townsend wanted more than anything (and, he achieved it) was to present a new image of African American people in the cinema. Careful and respectful of his fanbase the documentary is also a sincere love letter to the movie’s fans, as well as a master-class on filmmaking.
His desire to advance the cultural aims of Black people on film opened the door to the African American filmmakers working today. It’s almost like Townsend possessed a crystal ball at an early age. The vintage behind-the-scenes footage in the documentary is goosebumps rising on your forearms, chills up and down your spine spectacular and all deftly woven with personal stories with the five stars of the film (Townsend, Michael Wright, Harry J Lennix, Leon Robinson, Tico Wells), along with co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans, and the film’s bad guy you love to hate, “Big Red” (Hawthorne James).
In Los Angeles, the documentary will have their Oscar-qualifying screenings, with a special premiere event on Tuesday, Nov. 27 at Ahrya Fine Arts Theater in Beverly Hills beginning 7 p.m. There is a Q&A immediately following the screening (this event is by invitation, only).
Townsend’s public relations team is riding the wave of the positive word-of-mouth that’s been floating through Tinseltown for the past month with some of the important Academy voters chiming in on their respect for “Making The Five Heartbeats” and his legacy.
Despite having a temperature of 101, and struggling with the first flu of the season, I jumped at the opportunity to speak to Mr. Townsend, by phone. Here is an edited conversation with master storyteller Robert Townsend.
The Los Angeles Sentinel: Please excuse my raspy voice. I’m fighting the flu.
Robert Townsend: I hope you feel better.
LAS: Thank you for all the things you’ve done for helping people of color open so many closed doors in Hollywood, I mean Robert, you are a legend.
RT: (laughing) Thank you. You are very kind.
LAS: I loved your documentary [“Making The Five Heartbeats”]. I watched it three times. The third time to keep me company as I was writing. What made you decide to make a documentary, now?
RT: (laughing) Ohhh…bless your heart. Why now, you asked? A great question. People [over the years] have always asked me if I thought about doing a sequel to “The Five Heartbeats” because they loved the movie. I was never able to figure out a way to do it. But then I had all these stories in my head about how I made the movie how [back then] nobody wanted to make the movie and all the things that went wrong [while making the movie] and then I thought to myself, I will make a documentary about how I made the movie. That’s how it all started.
LAS: Your film is brutally honest and yet so beautiful and moving. What do you hope young storytellers get from what you shared?
RT: Sometimes people think [in Hollywood] that everything is easy … and the end of the day, as an artist, you have to fight for your vision. I think that a lot of people when they watch the documentary, they will realize that they are watching a master class.
LAS: Preach, it is a master class.
RT:(laughing) I saw 10,000 people for the roles and those actors that I saw that didn’t get the roles, I mean, look at who they are now. I kind of knew. I think for artists or just people in life we are [all] going to have obstacles but at the end of the day you [must] still win. You must fight for what you believe in.
If you believe and you work hard, you’re going to win. It’s just that there is work involved. I think [sometimes] when people look at the Black community, I think [some people ] say ‘well, I like Robert Townsend but how does it work?’ In this [“Making The Five Heartbeats”] you get a front row seat, right at the kitchen table with me, and you see how I create. And, I was very transparent. There were certain days [that] I doubted and I didn’t know if [everything] was going to work. But you keep going. You never give up. I couldn’t give up.
LAS: Your work is very generous. It might seem odd but you told many uncomfortable truths.
RT: Thank you for saying that. For me, people loved the movie but for me, if by making this journey I can inspire [just] one to get a glimpse, or two, of real-real, real rather than seeing, oh, you’re on “The Tonight Show.” I’m like ‘no there is a little blood, sweat, and tears’ [on the stage]. I’m really proud of the documentary.
LAS: Robert, have you ever thought of doing the “The Five Heart Beats” as a Broadway show? Don’t laugh.
RT: I am not laughing. Actually [co-writer] Keenen [Ivory Wayans] and I are working on a Broadway show right now, as a matter of fact.
LAS: I am floored. You both still write together?
RT: Yes. We [Keenen] are like best friends.
LAS: Anything you want to share before I let you off the phone?
RT: At the end of the film, what really put it all in perspective, for me, is there is one man that says that the film [“The Five HeartBeats”] changed his life. And I think that real artists, hopefully, create things that will one day change people lives. That’s what really motivates me. It’s one thing to entertain people [to] make them laugh, make them cry but it can really change how they think, feel then I’ve done my job.
At the end of the day, I don’t do it for rewards it’s just that I am going to always try and give it my best. Whatever happens, happens.
LAS: What’s next for you Robert Townsend?
RT: I am currently developing a one-man show about my life. I’m going to do it in a little theater, in Los Angeles, in February.
LAS: I’m so there Robert Townsend!
RT: You’re so invited, Los Angeles Sentinel!
“Making The Five Heartbeats” screens Friday, Nov. 30 at Laemmle’s NoHo 7, 5240 Lankershim, No. Hollywood, CA 91691. It will play four times a day from 12 PM – 10 PM through Thursday, Dec. 6.
Tix avail Nov.28: https://www.laemmle.com/theaters/23
NoHo 7 Movie Theater – Laemmle.com