The Robert Townsend shuffle


THE TIMES AND fortunes of Hollywood have forced Robert Townsend to become what he doesn't want to be: a trendsetter.

In a perfect world, Townsend would act, write, direct and produce films without having to answer media questions about being one of few blacks in creative control.

"I hate doing interviews about being the black Robert Townsend, the actor, writer, director and producer," said Townsend.

"At the core, it's about people. When I talk about movies, I don't say, "Gee, the white "Wizard of Oz" was a fine movie, or "I loved the white Robert De Niro in "Awakenings."

But Hollywood is hardly perfect, and the tiny core of black film makers, like Townsend, the Hudlin brothers, who produced the 1989 sleeper "House Party," newcomer Mario Van Peeples ("New Jack City") and Spike Lee, are pressed to deliver viable commercial products while telling stories that whitedirectors won't.

"I as a writer have to say that I'm going to create things that I want to see, music that I want to tap my feet to," said Townsend, who brings his "Partners in Crime" comedy troupe and musical performers, the Dells and Tressa Thomas, to the Lyric Opera House Sunday for two shows at 5 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.

Townsend, who wrote, produced, directed and starred in 1987's "Hollywood Shuffle," is seeing that some of the things that he lampooned four years ago have come to life. "Hollywood Shuffle" is a wry observation of the travails of succeeding in Hollywood as a black actor eager to portray roles other than the stereotypical,

His new film, "The Five Heartbeats," a musical drama loosely based on the experiences of the Dells, has been criticized by some white reviewers as unrealistic of the black experience, since drugs and violence aren't the core of the film.

Instead, "Heartbeats" portrays a group of five black singers who co-exist and are supportive of each other while rising to stardom in the 1960s.

"Why is it unreal that they couldn't care about each other?" said Townsend. "People say that's not real. That's based on a negative stereotype."

Referring to a scene in the movie where one of the characters has to decide whether to continue with the group or leave to support his pregnant girlfriend, Townsend offers, "Maybe this is the first time where a brother has said 'I want my kid' in a movie, but that doesn't mean that it doesn't happen. It's like with my partners. If something goes down with us, we're all supportive."

"Heartbeats," which again finds Townsend as writer, director and actor, took five years of research for Townsend and is a tribute of sorts to the Dells, a group that never received the widespread popularity that found such Motown staples as the Temptations and the Four Tops.

"The Dells have been together for 38 years and that says a lot to me," said Townsend of this group that shares his Chicago roots.

"Here are five guys who have survived the storm and have seen it all. The film is about overcoming obstacles and surviving. They were really popular with a lot of people but just didn't get the notice."

And although the audiences for "Heartbeats" have been overwhelmingly black, Townsend says the story isn't necessarily a black story.

"Except for a couple of scenes, this could have been about a white group," said Townsend. "Music is music and a good story is a good story ."

"Look at the Beatles. Why did they break up while John Lennon was alive? That would have made a great story. They started out poor in Liverpool and a manager found them and helped get them started. There were drugs with them too."

"Heartbeats" is an important step for Townsend and an opportunity to head off Hollywood's tendency to stick a performer or director into the slot of whatever has been successful.

"I'm first an artist, not just a comedian," said Townsend. "As I started talking to the Dells about this, I saw some things that were humorous, but the conversation took on more of an edge."

"I hate when they put certain artists in a box. It becomes, 'Why is he trying to be serious?' It's about stretching yourself. You have to take the consequences of stretching. For the most part, it's been positive."

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