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Robert Townsend’s ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ comes full circle

From ‘The Five Heartbeats’ to Netflix’s ‘Kaleidoscope,’ the director’s career is a unique jigsaw puzzle

Robert Townsend in Los Angeles on Jan. 23, 2023. (G L Askew II/For The Washington Post)
10 min

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

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

If anyone needed convincing, it was Townsend.

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

Knowing this, his agents urged him to consider “Kaleidoscope,” a limited series designed so its episodes can play in any order. The opportunity to work with lead star Giancarlo Esposito piqued Townsend’s interest, but it was the unique format of the series that reeled him in.

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

It’s fitting. Townsend’s career has been somewhat of a jigsaw puzzle: seemingly incongruous genres all locking neatly together.

Townsend imagined a Black superhero in “The Meteor Man” (1993), captured Jenifer Lewis’s larger-than-life personality in the celeb-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 director — the 1997 fish-out-of water comedy “B.A.P.S.” — Halle Berry sported a platinum-blond wig and gold teeth. “The Five Heartbeats,” a perennial fan favorite, 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 acted in them, to boot. The entertainment industry satire channeled the frustration Townsend and co-writer Keenen Ivory Wayans felt at the dearth of roles for Black actors in the 1980s. And it set Townsend on the path to help change that landscape with films 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 the heels of directing episodes of the buzzy “Kaleidoscope” and Peacock’s “The Best Man: The Final Chapters,” the latest pieces of that jigsaw puzzle are clicking into place, bringing the big picture of Townsend’s career into full view. “Hollywood Shuffle” — the first piece of the puzzle — is set to join the Criterion Collection next month, making Townsend, who turns 66 in February, one of few Black directors to receive the prestigious distinction.

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

His voices became more than a hobby after a teacher noticed his talent, leading him to local theater, where he joined an all-Black troupe at 14. Second City training followed. But when Townsend informed a teacher at Illinois State University that he had his sights set on show business, she discouraged him, telling him he’d never make it in New York. He took it as a challenge, transferring to a school in New Jersey to be close to New York City’s thriving stand-up circuit. By the early ’80s, he was a regular at Budd Friedman’s Improv, where he infused his stand-up with the characters and accents he had spent years mastering.

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

But Townsend learned that projects such as “Cooley High” and “A Soldier’s Story” — the Oscar-nominated 1984 film that marked his dramatic breakthrough as a young corporal — were few and far between. More often than not, he was restricted to the same old stereotypical roles, despite his theater and improv training. “Early on, a lot of actors of color were always put in this box. 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 act “Blacker.” One alum sings the praises of his training: “I’ve played nine crooks, four gang leaders, two dope dealers. I’ve played a rapist twice. That was fun!”

“Hollywood Shuffle” put Townsend on the map (he was soon tapped to direct the blockbuster comedy film “Eddie Murphy Raw”), but “The Five Heartbeats” is easily his most beloved work. Three decades on, it remains so collectively revered that not having seen it is suitable grounds for revoking your Black Card.

The 1991 drama — which Townsend wrote alongside Wayans — follows the challenges faced by a fictional R&B group, partly inspired by the Temptations and the Dells. Filled with iconic songs and scenes that regularly get the meme treatment on TikTok, the film has its share of comedic moments — one memorable scene features dancer Harold Nicholas as a seasoned choreographer who temporarily parts with his cane to show the Heartbeats how to really move — but it doesn’t skimp on gravitas. See the quiet, steely resolve in the musicians’ eyes when the Heartbeats are pulled over by a racist White police officer who orders them to sing on cue. One by one, they slowly join in on a discordant rendition of one of the group’s hits. “I’ve got nothing but love for you, baby,” they croon in the harsh glare of police lights.

That versatility behind the camera 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 tension 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 to Townsend, who has four children himself.

“I could sense pretty immediately that he was going to have an amazing way of working with the actors, having been an actor himself,” Garcia recalled. On set, Townsend distinguished himself from the series’ other directors with a trademark approach to getting the perfect take that he dubbed “one more for love.”

“That’s the cue for the actors to just do something that they haven’t been directed to do, that they haven’t tried before,” Garcia said. The tactic produced “some really great stuff,” he added, citing a scene in which inmates unknowingly ingest large quantities of hallucinogenic mushrooms. One especially inebriated 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. Another unique jigsaw piece.

During the past few years, Townsend has dabbled in episodic television, helming installments of Ava DuVernay’s “Colin in Black & White,” Tracy Morgan’s “The Last O.G.” (reuniting with Wayans, who served as showrunner in Season 3) and the CW’s “Black Lightning.” He also returned to acting with a brief, recurring role in the latter — an experience that motivated him to get back to his roots in theater. In 2019, he staged “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 evoked the biting Hollywood critique of Townsend’s directorial debut — so much so that multiple friends urged him to watch it. In the episode, titled “Work Ethic!,” Fisher’s character lands a role on 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 are in charge and we’re writing, we’re directing.’”

“He got it right,” Townsend said. “Like, that’s where ‘Hollywood Shuffle’ is now, in a whole ’nother universe.”

“Hollywood Shuffle’s” forthcoming addition to Criterion paradoxically highlights the film’s enduring relevance: In 2020, the archive of more than 1,000 feature films included just four African American filmmakers, all of whom are men. 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 quite literally come full circle on HBO, where his daughter Skye has forged 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 been kind of training me comedically since I was a kid,” she said. Not that she was always aware of it.

“He was really great at making everything seem like a game,” Skye added. “I had no idea I was undergoing, like, extensive improv training.”

One favorite was a bit they called “radio,” in which the elder Townsend would pretend to be a radio host tossing to various callers while driving his daughter to school. “He’d go, ‘okay, I think we have a Dr. Jill from Texas. Are you there.” Skye, all of nine or 10, would reply in her best southern drawl: “Hellooo, it’s me!”

The nepo baby discourse, for the record, isn’t lost on either of them. But “he’s forced me to respect the craft, not just enjoy entertaining. He’s like, it’s not about just getting attention. Anybody can get attention, but like, you really must be great if you’re going to be in this because you’re a Townsend, so don’t play with me,” she said, breaking into laughter.