Every generation has a Robert Townsend movie for them, whether it’s his acerbic examination of Black actors in the film industry with 1987’s “Hollywood Shuffle,” his attempt to crack the superhero genre with 1993’s “Meteor Man” or his spin on Disney Channel fare with the 2000s feature “Up, Up, and Away!” And don’t forget his 2001 adaptation of Bizet’s “Carmen” starring Beyoncé Knowles-Carter: “Carmen: A Hip Hopera.” The multihyphenate actor, director, comedian and writer has seen and done it all.
Nearly 50 years into his Hollywood career, Townsend is still working today. Most recently, he directed for the Netflix series “Kaleidoscope” and participated as a guest during TCM’s Black History Month celebration.
But it’s only in the last few years — aided by screenings of 1975’s “Cooley High,” 1984’s “A Soldier’s Story,” and “Hollywood Shuffle” on TCM — that Townsend’s legacy as a Black artist has begun getting the appreciation it deserves.
“The year it premiered on TCM, there were all these people that were like, ‘Robert Townsend, this movie is genius, man!'” he told TheWrap in regards to how “Hollywood Shuffle,” for which he starred, directed, produced and wrote, came to be discovered via the classic film network. “I was like, ‘What is going on? Did I die?'”
For the actor and director, it was a watershed moment. It’s not just that there was an audience discovering or rediscovering the feature, which was made for an estimated $100,000 and grossed $5.2 million in 1987. But the fact “Hollywood Shuffle” was airing on a channel commonly associated with white performers and directors added something special.
“It’s not just Cary Grant and James Cagney, it’s Robert Townsend now,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Townsend’s gone viral. In fact, he admits that a lot of his life and career has boiled down to timing. His 1993 feature “Meteor Man,” which Townsend also wrote, directed and starred in, came from his belief that Black people would love a superhero film, possibly leading to a billion dollar franchise. “I wasn’t wrong, my timing was just a little bit off,” Townsend admitted.
“Meteor Man” grossed $8 million domestically off a $20 million dollar budget, but when “Black Panther” came out in 2018 Townsend noticed, again, that social media had his back. “When they say the first Black superhero, there’s always this debate: ‘No, Robert Townsend is the first Black superhero,'” he said.
Yet, to hear Townsend talk about his directing career shows the sheer diversity in the projects he’s worked on, and how he’s found a space for himself as a creator in an industry that, in the ’80s and ’90s, marginalized and omitted Black directors from jobs. For Townsend, his goal was to tell the stories he wanted to tell. “That’s always been the fight,” he said. “We want to paint on different canvases, not the same ones that we’ve been given, year in and year out.”
It certainly took time for Townsend to reach that point. The reason he made “Hollywood Shuffle” — the story of a Black actor trying to make it in Hollywood — is because of the roles Townsend felt he was getting stuck in. “There was a whole slew of movies that were just about nothing, and show nothing but stereotypes of Black people. And I knew I didn’t want to be a part of that,” he said.
It was impossible not to notice how often the roles he was auditioning for were for Black characters named Licorice, Midnight or Eight Ball. “There was a point where I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do because this is not what I signed up for,'” he said.
Townsend explained that if he had to look back at the films he made where he felt seen, it started with his first credit, “Cooley High.”
“Growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, we had all the Black exploitation movies. It was pimps, and hustlers, and gangsters. Then there’s this little movie called ‘Cooley High’ that I happen to be a part of,” Townsend recalled. The film, directed by Michael Schultz, was similar to “American Graffiti,” following a group of Black high school seniors. “That was cut from a different cloth,” Townsend said.
It wasn’t until working with director Norman Jewison on “A Soldier’s Story” that Townsend decided he also wanted to direct.
“It was a story about people. It wasn’t Black people,” Townsend said. “We were just playing regular people who were soldiers.” Similarly, he saw Jewison as a filmmaker who wasn’t just “directing Black actors. He was just directing actors. He was trying to get the best performances and he knew exactly what he wanted. I studied him, I watched him.”
Townsend today credits Jewison for helping him see a path towards directing. From the beginning, he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker who found a way to tell stories about people of color with a positive spin, and Jewison was one of the first people Townsend called when he started making “Hollywood Shuffle.” Jewison ended up donating unused films, known in the film world as “short ends,” to Townsend to get started on the picture.
Reflecting on his career, Townsend believes there’s certainly been progress since he started in Hollywood. He quotes his mentor, the late Sidney Poitier: “He said, ‘When I started out, it was only me and the shoeshine boy.’ There were two Black people. That was it. And he said, ‘I knew I had a lot on my shoulders, and I could never lose it.'”
While seeing the amount of Black creatives working in film and TV today is heartening, Townsend still expressed that he sees room to keep growing.
He zeroes in on Gina Prince-Bythewood and her film “The Woman King” being snubbed of any Oscar nominations this year. “I was like, ‘They’re going to be nominated for some,” he said. “Viola [Davis] is just a beast in the role and it’s so well written, so well directed.”
Oversights like that, he said, certainly raise eyebrows, but it’s balanced out by frontrunner nominees like Angela Bassett for Best Supporting Actress for “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
“There’s always this give and take,” he said. “You didn’t get everything, but you got some things.”