Hidden Gem: Robert Townsend

The Five Heartbeats. Holiday Heart. B*A*P*S. Eddie Murphy Raw. Hollywood Shuffle. These are just a fraction of his man’s genius. I remember watching Hollywood Shuffle and thinking it was a silly movie until I saw what it took to make the movie and the purpose of the film.

Robert Townsend has always been a person who I’ve viewed as a person who is passionate about bringing stories to life that happen to be about black life. I never looked at Townsend’s stories as black stories. Just stories that had black people in them. Let’s start with Hollywood Shuffle.

Hollywood Shuffle is Townsend’s journey through Hollywood as a black actor. Most have heard the stories of stereotyping black actors as the pimp, the drug dealer or the mugger; however, few had explored that on film and in television at the time. Now, we do it all the time. Not only did it give insight into a world many of us are not apart of and don’t see but Townsend PAID FOR THE MOVIE OUT OF POCKET. Let me say that again. A black man that is, at this time, more so Hollywood adjacent believed in what he was doing so much that he maxed his own credit cards out to make this film the classic that it is. Let’s move on to B*A*P*S.

On the surface, B*A*P*S is a movie about two, loud best friends from the hood who want to make all their dreams come true. And although they lied, they were able to do that and so much more. They were able to find out that they were more than two girls from the hood. They had heart, class, elegance and they deserved much more than they were settling for. And, the dynamic between Halle Berry and Natalie Desselle was phenomenal. I don’t think I can think of another role where I saw Berry in this fun, inhibited sort of atmosphere.

There are people who really think that The Five Heartbeats are a real R&B group and those people are special people because you know your momma never played no group called “The Five Heartbeats.” Just that alone makes this man an absolute genius because I can’t think of another movie where we thought the story was based on real events. Also, you know Red’s office hours an if you don’t, I pity you.

Holiday Heart is one of my favorite films and in a later post, I will explain exactly why. Ving Rhames as Holiday, a gay man, drag queen and devoted Christian, finds a woman and child struggling to get back to the life they once had before the mother became addicted to drugs. It’s a beautiful story of hope, survival and love that, at the time I saw the film, I had never seen on film before.

Robert Townsend is still out here spreading wisdom to future filmmakers, screenwriters and actors. He is a jack of all trades, director, actor, comedian and writer and he, I feel, is not talked about enough for the contributions to not only black cinema but for the film industry in general. The point of film is to stretch the imagine of the viewer and to bring them into a world that we can either relate to or we’ve never seen before and Townsend has shown us time and time again just how to do that.

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