Film Director Robert Townsend Honored: Talks Legacy, Hollywood Inclusion And The Late John Singleton

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Written by Ann Brown
Townsend
Director Robert Townsend of “Why We Laugh” poses for a portrait at the Gibson Guitar Lounge during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Saturday, Jan. 17, 2009. (AP Photo/Mark Mainz)

Filmmaker Robert Townsend headed home to Chicago recently, to his old neighborhood in the West Side known as K-Town. He was home to accept a “Leadership Award For Arts In The Community” from the Chicago West Community Music Center, a nonprofit organization offering arts programs for at-risk youth. The center was also celebrating its 20th anniversary. Being honored with Townsend was Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

During the honor, Townsend, 62, took the time to talk about  legacy, inclusion, and the late John Singleton, who died April 28 at age 51.

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“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,” Chicago Sun-TImes reported.

Despite his successes, it wasn’t an easy road for Townsend. “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 spoke of the racism he, Singleton, Lee, and others had to endure to make a way for themselves in Hollywood.

“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.”

After moving from Chicago to Los Angeles, he got his first break in “A Soldier’s Story” (1984), with Denzel Washington, David Allen Grier, Howard Rollins, and the late Adolph Caesar. 

Of that experience, Townsend said he “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.’ ”

Townsend said it was important for aspiring Black filmmakers to be mentored, which he does. 

“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.”