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Robert Townsend’s ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ completes the circle


Robert Townsend needed no introduction, at least not to Eric Garcia.

The creator of “Kaleidoscope” has counted himself a fan of Townsend’s since the director’s feature film debut, “Hollywood Shuffle” in 1987. The idea of ​​having Townsend helmet episodes of his Netflix show intrigued him.

If anyone needed convincing, it was Townsend.

“I’m always interested in directing something new and something fresh and something different,” Townsend said in a recent interview via Zoom. “I am a very picky man. I don’t like anything and everything.”

Knowing this, his agents urged him to consider “Kaleidoscope”, a limited series designed so that the episodes can be played in any order. The opportunity to collaborate with protagonist Giancarlo Esposito Townsend’s interest piqued, but it was the series’ unique format that drew him in.

“It was like a jigsaw puzzle,” Townsend recalls. “And I was like, ‘Ooh, I like this.'”

It’s appropriate. Townsend’s career has been a bit of a jigsaw puzzle: seemingly incongruous genres that all fit neatly together.

Townsend envisioned a black superhero in “The Meteor Man” (1993), captured the larger-than-life persona of Jenifer Lewis in the celebrity-studded 1999 mockumentary “Jackie’s Back!” and centered Beyoncé — still in Destiny’s Child and barely out of her teens — in a 2001 hip-hop adaptation of the opera “Carmen.” In one of his more polarizing turns as a director – the 1997 fish-out-of-water comedy “BAPS” – Halle Berry wore a platinum blonde wig and gold teeth. A perennial fan favorite, “The Five Heartbeats” followed a fictional R&B group straight to the lonely top.

“Hollywood Shuffle” is his most defining project, the one that transformed Robert Townsend – an actor with roots in theater, stand-up and improvisational comedy – into Robert Townsend, a director and producer who often wrote (or co-wrote) his projects. and traded in it, to boot. The entertainment industry satire channeled the frustration that Townsend and co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans felt about the lack of roles for black actors in the 1980s. And it set Townsend on the path to help change that landscape with movies and TV shows that reflected the full spectrum of black life and featured a Who’s Who of Black Hollywood talent: Diahann Carroll, James Earl Jones, Don Cheadle, Marla Gibbs, John Witherspoon and many others.

on after directing episodes of the buzzing “Kaleidoscope” and Peacock’s “The Best Man: The Final Chapters,” the final pieces of that puzzle are falling into place, revealing the big picture of Townsend’s career in full view. “Hollywood Shuffle” – the first piece of the puzzle – will be part of the Criterion Collection next month, making Townsend, who will turn 66 in February, one of the few black directors to receive the prestigious award.

Growing up on Chicago’s West Side, Robert Townsend’s encyclopedic knowledge of what was on the tube and his ever-expanding catalog of impersonations earned him the nickname “TV Guide.” He adopted a Hitchcockian lilt to tell the creepy tales from “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” and flawlessly imitated Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca” and Walter Brennan in “The Westerner.”

His voices became more than a hobby after a teacher noticed his talent and directed him to the local theater, where he joined an all-black troupe at the age of 14. A second City training followed. But when Townsend told an Illinois State University teacher that he had set his sights on show business, she discouraged him and told him he would never make it in New York. Taking it as a challenge, he transferred to a New Jersey school to be close to New York City’s thriving stand-up circuit. In the early ’80s, he was a regular at Budd Friedman’s Improv, infusing his stand-up with the characters and accents he had mastered for years.

If Townsend’s career had turned out the way he envisioned prior to his brief, uncredited acting debut in the 1975 dramedy “Cooley High,” he might not have maxed out several credit cards to make “Hollywood Shuffle.” “Cooley High,” itself a recent addition to Criterion, was the rare coming-of-age story — based on writer Eric Monte’s childhood in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing project — that focused on black teens. For Townsend, it mirrored his own childhood in a deeply moving way.

But Townsend found that projects like “Cooley High” and “A Soldier’s Story”—the Oscar-nominated 1984 film that marked his dramatic breakthrough as a young corporal—were scarce. More often than not, he was limited to the same old stereotyped roles, despite his theater and improv training. “A lot of colored actors were always put in this box in the beginning. And I was like, ‘I’m not cool with the box,'” Townsend said. “That’s when I found my cinematic voice.”

He highlights that absurdity in a “Hollywood Shuffle” scene that serves as a PSA for the “Black Acting School,” where White instructors teach black actors “Jive Talk 101” and other ways to play “Blacker.” An alumnus praises his education: “I played nine crooks, four gang leaders, two drug dealers. I played a rapist twice. That was fun!”

“Hollywood Shuffle” put Townsend on the map (he was soon asked to direct the blockbuster “Eddie Murphy Raw”), but “The Five Heartbeats” is easily his best-loved work. Three decades later, it remains so collectively revered that not having seen it is a good reason to revoke your Black Card.

The 1991 drama – which Townsend co-wrote with Wayans – follows the challenges faced by a fictional R&B group, inspired in part by the Temptations and the Dells. Filled with iconic songs and scenes that regularly get the meme treatment on TikTok, the movie has its share of comedic moments — one memorable scene shows dancer Harold Nicholas as a veteran choreographer who temporarily gives up his cane to show the Heartbeats how they really need to move – but it doesn’t skimp on gravitas. See the quiet, steely determination in the musicians’ eyes when the Heartbeats are apprehended by a racist white police officer who orders them to sing on command. One by one they slowly sing along in a dissonant rendition of one of the group’s hits. “I have nothing but love for you, baby,” they hum in the bright light of the police lights.

That behind-the-camera versatility is part of what made Garcia feel Townsend was a natural fit to helm the “Kaleidoscope’s” “Green” and “Violet” episodes, which tap into the show’s more emotional aspects — particularly the suspense. which Esposito’s character feels between his affinity for crime and his devotion to his wife, Lily (Robinne Lee), and daughter, Hannah (Austin Elle Fisher). Establishing the father-daughter relationship came easily for Townsend, who has four children of her own.

“I felt pretty straight away that he would have a great way of working with the actors because he was an actor himself,” Garcia recalled. On set, Townsend stood out from the series’ other directors with a signature approach to getting the perfect cut that he called “one more for love.”

“That’s the cue for the actors to just do something they’re not told to do, that they haven’t tried before.” Garcia said. The tactic yielded “really amazing things,” he added, citing a scene where prisoners unknowingly ingested large amounts of hallucinogenic mushrooms. A particularly drunk inmate declares himself a peacock, complete with (imaginary) wings.

“Kaleidoscope” ended up being the perfect Robert Townsend project – in the sense that he had never done anything like it before. Another unique puzzle piece.

In recent years, Townsend has dabbled in episodic television, starring in episodes of Ava DuVernay’s “Colin in Black & White,” Tracy Morgan’s “The Last OG” (reunited with Wayans, who served as showrunner on Season 3), and the CW’s “Black Lightning”. .” He also returned to acting with a short, recurring role in the latter – an experience that motivated him to go back to his theater roots.In 2019, he hosted “Living the Shuffle” – a one-man show about his life and career – which he hopes to adapt for the Broadway stage.

Austin Elle Fisher, the actress who played the younger version of Hannah in “Kaleidoscope,” also appeared in an episode of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” that sparked caustic Hollywood criticism of Townsend’s directorial debut — so much so that several friends urged him to watch the. In the episode, titled “Work Ethic!”, Fisher’s character lands a role in a sitcom produced by the Tyler Perry-esque Mr. Chocolate.

“Donald Glover is so smart,” said Townsend, who is wryly referenced in a later episode. “It was like, ‘Let me kind of show you what it looks like, this new ‘Hollywood Shuffle,’ because we’re in charge and we’re writing, we’re directing.'”

“He was right,” said Townsend. “Like, that’s where ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ is now, in a whole ‘other universe.'”

Paradoxically, the impending addition of “Hollywood Shuffle” to Criterion highlights the film’s enduring relevance: As of 2020, the archive of more than 1,000 feature films contained just four African-American filmmakers, all of them male. In the years since, Criterion has added titles, including Sidney Poitier’s “Buck and the Preacher” and “Eve’s Bayou,” from director Kasi Lemmons, but glaring omissions remain.

Now Townsend’s legacy has literally come full circle on HBO, where his daughter Skye has carved her own path in sketch comedy as a standout presence on “A Black Lady Sketch Show.” When HBO called, she was ready, thanks to her dad. “He’s kind of trained me comically since I was a kid,” she said. Not that she was always aware of that.

“He was really good at making everything look like a game,” added Skye. “I had no idea I was taking extensive improv training.”

A favorite was a bit they called “radio,” in which the older Townsend pretended to be a radio host throwing punches at several callers while taking his daughter to school. “He’d go, ‘Okay, I think we have a Dr. Jill from Texas. Are you there.” Skye, all nine or ten, would answer in her best southern accent, “Hello, it’s me!”

The nepo baby discourse, for the record, is not lost on either of them. But “he forced me to respect the profession and not just enjoy entertainment. He’s like, it’s not just about getting attention. Anyone can get attention, but you have to be really great if you want to play this, because you’re a Townsend, so don’t play with me,” she said, bursting into laughter.

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