Robert Townsend – heading to Broadway – talks ‘Making the Five Heartbeats’
The beautiful story unfolds as a masterclass creation
The 1991 film The Five Heartbeats features an electric, memorable and tearful church scene that film executives were asked to cut. Actor, comedian and dynamic filmmaker Robert Townsend spills that and more in his new documentary Making the Five Heartbeats, which airs Monday night in more than 500 select theaters for one night only.
Choir Boy (Tico Wells) told Duck (Townsend) during a telephone conversation after The Five Heartbeats broke up that he had a special surprise for him. He wanted him to attend his church for Sunday service. After careful consideration, Duck obliged. As the church choir stood at Choir Boy’s command, the playing of the piano began, the bass of a familiar voice bellowed throughout the church. To Duck’s surprise, it was a clean and sober Eddie “Kang” Jr. and his girl Baby Doll singing the gospel song “I Feel Like Going On.”
Duck shouts, “Take your time.”
It is a pivotal scene in the film, co-written, produced and directed by Townsend. King — or, as audiences called him after his famous line, “Can’t nobody sang like Eddie Kang” — played by Michael Wright, finds salvation after viewers thought he was dead.
“That movie is one of my favorites, and I have never revisited anything I’ve ever created,” Townsend told The Undefeated. “But because it felt like a demand from the audience and the fans that just want to know the creative process is how the idea of doing this documentary came together.”
Townsend skillfully created the film that sums up the calamity of a 1960s rhythm and blues group’s downfall and redemption simultaneously taking viewers on the journey of racial discrimination that many black entertainers faced at the time. It starred actor, comedian, director and filmmaker Townsend, Wright, Leon, Harry J. Lennix and Wells.
Making the Five Heartbeats places viewers in the days leading up to the March 29, 1991, release until now. It was a pivotal year in sports and black movies, with a number of successful films produced by or starring black actors (New Jack City, Jan. 17; A Rage in Harlem, May 3; Jungle Fever, June 7; Straight Out of Brooklyn, June 13; Boyz n The Hood, July 2; Mississippi Masala, Sept. 18; Ricochet, Oct. 4; House Party 2, Oct. 23; Strictly Business, Nov. 8). That same year, a 28-year-old Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to their first NBA championship.
But a month before The Five Heartbeats was released, the cast and crew were on a press tour, which landed them at a Chicago Bulls vs. Boston Celtics game on Feb. 26, 1991, in Chicago. One of the film’s standouts, 12-year-old actor/singer Tressa Thomas, who shared a big scene in the movie as Duck’s sister, got a chance to sing the national anthem. She sang her rendition in 3 minutes, 39 seconds (according to the Chicago Tribune, Whitney Houston’s version took 1:27 at that year’s Super Bowl). Townsend, a Chicago native, recalled a moment when an eager Jordan gave him the eye, a sign that he was ready for the game to begin. The Bulls won 129-99.
Despite a heavy press tour, the film did not bring in the numbers Townsend wanted. But after it was released on VHS on Sept. 10, 1992, the movie hit households and instantly became a classic.
Townsend is working with Keenan Ivory Wayans to take The Five Heartbeats to Broadway. Townsend worked on stage during the beginning phases of his career in Chicago. He made his first film appearance in Cooley High; starred alongside Denzel Washington in Glory; made his first film, Hollywood Shuffle, with a $100,000 budget with Wayans; and so much more He discussed the documentary and his well-respected résumé with The Undefeated.
What inspired you to follow up the 1991 classic with this documentary?
I have done a lot of movies and television shows in my career, and I’ve touched a lot of different genres. So when people look at my body of work, there’s Hollywood Shuffle; that is about the entertainment industry and the ups and downs of that. Then I’ve done silly comedies like B*A*P*S with Halle Berry. Then I’ve done dramatic stuff like Holiday Heart with Alfre Woodard and Ving Rhames, and so I’ve touched all kind of genres. But the one film that people seem to really love, and it resonates with them a lot, is The Five Heartbeats, and people have asked me over the years, ‘How did you make the movie? How did you cast the movie?’
I couldn’t figure it out, and I was just like, well, I’ll do a documentary because the journey I went on to make the movie, people would not believe the stuff that I had to go through. Because now a lot of people consider it a classic. I said, let me tell the story about all the stuff that I went through, just my process. It became a whole ‘nother world, and I’m really happy with what the documentary is about.
How detailed does the documentary get?
The documentary is no-holds-barred. I really share my creative process. I don’t think there’s ever been a documentary like this where you get to see a filmmaker’s journey. Keenan [Ivory Wayans] and I wrote the script together, and I take you inside our writers room, how we really wrote the script, and our motivation and our inspiration. Keenan talks about how we did draft after draft after draft, and that after Hollywood Shuffle we were really trying to raise our game as writers. We were going after an Oscar. We wanted to be Oscar-winning writers.
The documentary, I don’t think there’s ever been one like this. I don’t think Spike has ever done one or John Singleton, where you started from the inception of the idea and went through the casting process, the shooting process, the release of the film and everything that happened all in between. I know for me as an artist, I’m really naked. I’m sharing everything, but I just think that people that are in show business or want to be in show business, I think it’s an inspiring journey because you see me get bumps and bruises along the way.
How do you continue to remain relevant in this business?
It’s so funny because I’m blessed to do what I do. A lot of people feel motivated and inspired by my work, and so now I’m really working with the next generation. I just finished shooting an episode of a new TV series called Love Is, and it just recently aired. It’s a new television series on Oprah’s network and Mara Brock Akil is the creator of it, and I just had the best time. And I’m working with her, and then I’m working with her husband, Salim. I’m doing a recurring role on Black Lightning, and I’m going to direct an episode or two. I just stay creative and play with the new kids on the block, and I just have fun.
How was the experience directing the second episode of Love Is?
I just had fun because with the second episode, I got to develop the sitcom that she was writing for, I got to re-create George’s, which was Denzel’s [Washington] restaurant back in the day that I used to go to. And so there were certain things that I could identify with on a lot of different levels. And when something’s so well-written, and the cast is amazing young actors, I just had fun. I know we got picked up for a second season, so I’m looking forward to going back and doing some more episodes.
Let’s talk about your 1987 film Hollywood Shuffle. What was your thought process behind creating a film that would remain relevant for shedding light on the challenges African-Americans face in Hollywood?
When I create, I try to create stuff that’s timeless and you can connect with the emotion or the laughter. The best movies and the best TV shows that I have watched over my lifetime, they will always entertain you. I could stop what I’m doing and watch The Godfather, and I’ve seen it a thousand times and I’m still entertained. Or The Wizard of Oz. There’s certain movies and television shows that are just so well-written. So as a writer and as an artist, I always try to create something that is different, something that is special, that resonates with me. So I always try to touch things that nobody else is touching, and whatever happens, I just do my best. And if people like it, they like it. If they don’t, they don’t, but I did my best.
How did you interject race and culture into every piece you created?
The thing that I would say is that there’s a part of me that likes entertaining people, but I also want to educate people. And so there’s an intersection where I just can’t be funny-funny, I’ve got to say something. I can’t be dramatic-dramatic without adding some comedy. So I think sometimes as an artist, when you paint on the canvases that I have created, I always try to color in different things. And I think that when I started out, they didn’t ever portray black people as human beings. We were always stereotypical, so I made it my mission as an artist to create images of people of color that painted them as human beings so that when you watch us, you go, oh, he’s not just a mugger, he’s not just a thief, he’s not just an illiterate character, that there’s dimensions, there’s layers to these people. And that’s been my mission for my entire career.
Why did you decide to incorporate the post office narrative into the fundamentals of Hollywood Shuffle?
That really was just truth because my mother worked at the post office, my sister works at the post office. The man who lived next door, Mr. Griffin, he was a supervisor at the post office. And so everybody was like, ‘That’s a good-paying job,’ and it does pay really good money. So when my grandmother would always say, ‘You know, there’s a job at the post office. You can get work at the post office,’ that was really based off truth. As a writer, you just take real things that happen in life, and that was real. It was like, wait a minute, you could get a job at post office and they pay good. And I worked at the post office as an 89-day sub one summer unloading trucks, and you make great money.
But the thing that I wanted to say was that there’s dignity in just working a job without having to sell your soul in Hollywood, and that was part of the message there, was that what will you sell your soul for. And I think sometimes people sell their soul in Hollywood because they think that they can be famous. And at the end of the day, you’ve got to be happy with who you are. And so that’s why I kept that in there, about there’s always work at the post office.
Who inspires you as a content creator?
You know who really inspired me was Sidney Poitier, and he’s been like my godfather because he was the first man of color that I saw that had dignity. And when I first met with him when I got to Hollywood, after Hollywood Shuffle, I called him and I said, ‘How did you get to have dignity back then?’ And he was like, ‘The power to say no.’ He goes, ‘There’s power in no. I didn’t accept every role that came along.’ And so that was really the journey with him. He was my first role model in Hollywood.
How and where do you create?
I can create at home, but I go to the beach. I go to the water. I go out in Malibu and I go on the beach, and I’ll sit out there for a few hours and clear my brain and then stuff comes into my brain.
You created and launched the black male superhero movie — Meteor Man. How do you feel about how the black superhero narrative has taken off now?
I feel really, really good because sometimes it takes the first soldier to get over the mountain, the pioneer to go through the wilderness. As a matter of fact, Aug. 6 was the 25th anniversary of Meteor Man. And so when I look at all the superheroes now, I know that they came from me planting the seed. When I look at Black Lightning, when I look at Luke Cage, when I see Black Panther, I know I planted a seed 25 years ago that somebody said, ‘Black superheroes? Robert Townsend? What is he doing? This is crazy. Well, wait a minute, there needs to be black superheroes.’ “