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Robert Townsend to be honored by local arts group; talks legacy, inclusion and the late John Singleton

The filmmaker will return to his Chicago roots to accept an award from the Chicago West Community Music Center’s gala Saturday at the Palmer House.

Film director Robert Townsend
Film director, actor, comedian and screenwriter Robert Townsend is a Chicago native who grew up in Lawndale and graduated from Austin High School in 1975.
Getty Images for Ebertfest

Hollywood Director and Chicago native Robert Townsend was reflecting on attending the memorial last month for fellow black filmmaker John Singleton, who died April 28 at age 51.

Singleton, who’d suffered a stroke, had brought to the screen such beloved films on the black experience as “Boyz N The Hood,” “Poetic Justice,” “Four Brothers,” and “Baby Boy.”

The May 21 memorial was held at Singleton’s alma mater, University of Southern California.

Townsend attended with another black filmmaker, Keenen Ivory Wayans.

“It was very moving, because you had people like Samuel Jackson, Don Cheadle, talking about working with him, their love for him. Spike did a video,” Townsend said.

That’s Spike Lee, another black filmmaker. Lee, Townsend, Wayans and Singleton were trailblazers in battling Hollywood to get black stories, and black actors, on the screen.

Townsend, 62 raised by his single mother on the West Side, in the north Lawndale neighborhood known as K-Town, heads home this week to accept a “Leadership Award For Arts In The Community,” from the Chicago West Community Music Center.

The nonprofit, offering arts programs for at-risk youth, celebrates its 20th anniversary Saturday with a Palmer House gala. Being honored with Townsend is Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Townsend is best known for such groundbreaking films as “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987) and “The Five Heartbeats” (1991). The satirical “Hollywood Shuffle,” his phenomenally successful directorial debut, threw racial stereotyping of black actors right back at Hollywood.

On a $100,000 budget — $60,000 on Townsend’s credit cards — the movie grossed over $5 million, propelling him to stardom as an independent filmmaker and actor.

Filmmaker Robert Townsend, 62, born and raised in Chicago’s West Side North Lawndale neighborhood, is among a handful of black filmmakers, including Spike Lee and the late John Singleton, who were trailblazers in battling Hollywood to get black stories on the screen, and black actors.
Provided photo

“To get a movie made in Hollywood is a monumental feat. You have to be a certain kind of person, and have a certain level of tenacity to succeed in this business,” Townsend said of the racism he, Singleton, Lee and others had to learn to carve their own paths around.

“Many people have dreams of making movies, but not many people will be able to say, ‘Action,’ ‘Cut,’ and really get it done. John was always driven. He had the kind of tenacity to move mountains. He was very giving, hard working,” said Townsend. “You have to be wired a certain way to play in Hollywood, and John got that. It’s just a shame he died so young.”

Townsend, a divorced father of four, is also an actor, comedian and screenwriter. He graduated in 1975 from Austin High School, where he first fell in love with acting. He later dropped out of college to pursue an acting career in New York.

“I decided I was going to be a stand-up comedian, so I went to audition at the world famous Improv Comedy Club. It was the late 70’s. Jay Leno was the host, and you had Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Rodney Dangerfield, etc. In the line, waiting to audition, I met a young comedian named Keenen Ivory Wayans. That’s how we became friends.”

Wayans moved to Los Angeles, and later convinced Townsend to join him.

“So I’m a young actor auditioning for a lot of negative stereotypical roles. I catch my first break in ‘A Soldier’s Story’ (1984), with Denzel Washington, David Allen Grier, Howard Rollins and the late and legendary Adolph Caesar. It was the first time I got to play a human being, and the movie changed my life,” Townsend said.

“I told my agent I wanted to do more movies like that. He says, ‘They only make one black movie a year. You just did it. Be happy.’ I wasn’t. I just got more frustrated. I said to Keenen, ‘We should make our own movie.’ ”

Director Robert Townsend
Among the films for which director Robert Townsend (center) is best known are “Hollywood Shuffle” (1987) and “The Five Heartbeats” (1991). The former, his phenomenally successful first effort, was a satire of racial stereotyping of black actors by Hollywood. On a $100,000 budget, the movie grossed over $5 million, propelling Townsend to stardom.
Provided photo

That led to the two of them working together on “Hollywood Shuffle.” The same year that movie put Townsend on the map, he directed the classic “Eddie Murphy Raw.”

He and Wayans then partnered again on “The Five Heartbeats.” That film, about a 1960’s R&B group, became a cult classic.

“When I was a kid in Chicago, The Temptations broke up, and I always wanted to know what happened,” Townsend said.

His other films include “Meteor man” (1993); “B.A.P.S.” (1997); “Carmen: A Hip Hopera,” starring Beyonce (2001); “10,000 Black Men Named George” (2002); and “In The Hive” (2012), which was the late actor Michael Clarke Duncan’s last movie.

Townsend produced and starred in TV variety shows in the early 1990’s, and in a WB Network sitcom, “The Parent Hood,” from 1995 to 1999.

Townsend last year released “The Making of the Five Heartbeats” documentary, for the film’s legion of hardcore fans — who include Chance the Rapper. The rapper had Townsend come to Chicago to screen the documentary this past January at a film festival for his nonprofit, “because he loves the movie,” Townsend said.

The documentary is dedicated to Townsend’s mom, Shirley Townsend, who died two years ago. While he doesn’t like contemplating his own legacy, his mission, Townsend said, remains to uplift and inspire the black community through film.

He mentors aspiring filmmakers to do the same.

“In Hollywood, new doors are opening. When you’ve been in the game as long as I have, the world looks very different right now,” said Townsend. “There was a time when it was only me, Spike, Keenen, Singleton and Reggie Hudlin. Now, there are more directors. As elder statesmen, to see the new cinematic sons and daughters — Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, Ryan Koogler, and now Jordan Peele — I have to say it’s a beautiful time in Hollywood.”

Director Robert Townsend, shown on the red carpet at the Academy Awards
Director Robert Townsend, shown on the red carpet at the Academy Awards, said “new doors are opening” for black directors. “To see the new cinematic sons and daughters — Ava DuVernay, Lena Waithe, Ryan Koogler, and now Jordan Peele — I have to say it’s a beautiful time in Hollywood.”
Provided photo