Robert Townsend is one of the most important names in black cinematic history. Before Black Panther broke countless records, Townsend brought one of the first black superheroes to the big screen as the writer, director, and producer of 1993’s The Meteor Man. He’s also the mastermind behind classics like Hollywood Shuffle, the sitcom The Parent ‘Hood, Carmen: A Hip Hopera, and the Temptations-inspired film about a ‘60s singing group, The Five Heartbeats. But it’s the latter Townsend says people keep asking him about.
“Every time I go to the airport or go to the cleaners, gas stations, it’s like, ‘Why did you cast him?’ ‘How did you find these actors?’ ‘That music, man, the little scene with the sister…’ I would get all these things and then one day, people would say ‘Are you going to do a sequel? Do a sequel. That’s your best movie. Do a sequel to The Five Heartbeats,’ ” he says over the phone.
Although he couldn’t create a sequel as fans adamantly asked for, he decided to create a documentary instead. The film, Making The Five Heartbeats, takes theater-goers behind-the-scenes, including celebrities who auditioned and didn’t get a role, the drama that was unfolding on set, and how a young black filmmaker was able to put his dream project on the big screen.
VIBE talked with Townsend to discuss The Five Heartbeats, the 25th anniversary of The Meteor Man, and why he had to fight for Beyoncé to star in Carmen: A Hip Hopera.
VIBE: It has been a few years since The Five Heartbeats came out. How does it feel to live through its legacy to today?
Robert Townsend: I’m really proud of what I was able to accomplish and I think the film, when people now consider it a classic, it makes me feel really really good. Revisiting it was a little difficult at first, but it was a lot of fun. I really created the documentary because of the fans. Everybody kept asking how I made the movie. Every time I go to the airport or go to the cleaners, gas stations it was like, ‘Why did you cast him?’ ‘How did you find these actors?’ ‘That music man the little scene with the sister…’ I would get all these things and then one day, people would say, ‘Are you going to do a sequel? Do a sequel. That’s your best movie. Do a sequel to The Five Heartbeats.’ And I couldn’t figure out a sequel but I said there are some stories that happen behind the scenes that would make you laugh and make you cry. I started writing down all these stories that happened while we were making this movie and I said, ‘Wow, this could be a documentary.’ I’ve been messing around with this concept for 10 years off and on between the shooting of the projects. Then I said, I think I know what it is now and it all just came together. Everybody will see the journey of a young black filmmaker trying to make a mark in Hollywood and change the perception of black men by using the backdrop of music.
You mentioned it was difficult to make the documentary. What was difficult about it?
Well, how much truth do you tell? Sometimes when you do documentaries — there was more drama going on and you just keep it really clean. I said, ‘Okay Robert, you’ve been in show business for over 30 years, do you really want to tell the real truth behind how you make movies and it goes well and sometimes it goes bad?’ Then I had to have a conversation with myself and say, ‘Yeah, I think it would be helpful for anybody who has a dream to understand what it takes to make your dream a reality.’
Right. Did you speak with any of the other actors?
Oh yes, all of The Five Heartbeats are interviewed, plus Hawthorne James who plays Big Red and Keenen Ivory Wayans, who co-wrote the script with me. Keenen is in a documentary talking about the journey as writers then later on what happens in the movie.
Were they apprehensive at all to share the truth or were they like let’s just get it all out there?
You know what it is, we’re all family. We’re like a singing group. We’re tied together for life now. (Laughs) At the time, we’re all young, so people are fighting over dumb stuff and egos because of all the beautiful women on the set; people start living their characters in real life. So there was a lot going on (Laughs) and I got to play the ringmaster because I’m the co-writer, the director, I’m starring in the movie, I’m producing the movie, and I’ve got to learn dance steps. I had to do [a lot] and it came together.
What was your favorite part about creating The Five Heartbeats?
I don’t think there is one favorite part because I like all stages of production. I like being in the writer’s room that we created, me and Keenen, because we would find these little beautiful moments. For example, like ‘How are Duck and JT going to make up at the end?’ Then I remember Keenen said, ‘Oh, he should have a son and name the son after him like we set up in act one.’ So we’d find these moments and we’d both go like [Deep inhale] ‘Oh my God that’s good, write it down.’
That’s so cool. What do you think people watching the documentary are going to be surprised about?
They’re going to be surprised about how many stars auditioned for the film and weren’t accepted.
Yes. I saw close to 10,000 actors to be in the film. I had open calls in New York and Chicago and L.A. and I didn’t want to just listen to the studio and the studio said these are the best actors. I had to see for myself. The little girl who plays my sister [Tressa Thomas], I discovered her at the open call in Chicago and we had like 5,000 people and she was like 500-and-something on line and she sang for me. It inspired me and I wrote that scene for her. But that wasn’t initially in the script; it was out of the open call.
Wow, that’s amazing. Were the people who auditioned famous during the audition process or they went on to become famous afterward?
Over the years people became famous. One of the people on line is one of the biggest music stars in the country and a songwriter, Grammy-winner, and he was auditioning because he was looking for a break. Then there’s one of the housewives from Atlanta who auditioned. You’ve got one of the stars from Empire who auditioned. You’ve got a talk show host, an actress that does a lot of commercials. You’ve got a TV star with a hit show right now on the air and she’s a star, you see her on the casting line auditioning. I’m not going to say nobody’s name until you go see it. It’s going to be a surprise. I mean, here is the thing, I want people to sit in the theater and go, ‘Oh my God.’
It’s going to be like that. I think one of the things that people will discover is my journey with David Ruffin. The whole movie came about when I was a kid and The Temptations broke up and I didn’t understand. As a kid I said, ‘They sing the best love songs and they’re so good together. Why are they breaking up, what happened?’ And that’s when I was nine years old and it stayed with me. After Keenen and I did Hollywood Shuffle, I said, ‘We should do a movie about The Temptations or a movie about the singing group and see what happens.’ I was like ‘Let’s do it,’ Keenen said, ‘Yeah Rob that would be really cool.’ And that’s how it started.
Even though The Five Heartbeats isn’t exactly a biopic, where do you think it stands in the canon of biopics?
It’s my baby. I’m so close. I’m proud papa. But I just think that as an artist I’ve painted on a canvas that I think is special. I think that I’m the head of the machine but it takes all this collaboration to make the machine really go and create that piece of art. I think everybody I worked with stepped their A-game up. Every actor like Michael Wright, Leon, Tick [Wells], Harry [Lennix], they all brought their A-game. Hawthorne [James] playing Big Red and then George Duke and Steve Tyrell did amazing music and John McClain. Ruth Carter did the costumes. The team that worked with me—everybody did their thing.
Definitely. Is there a biopic you’d like to do or a biopic which you think should be made?
I don’t really look at it from the lens of, hey I want to do a biopic. It’s more if something speaks to me. If there is a character or figure then I go ‘Oh, I love to do that.’ My work is so different because I’ve touched so many different things. I can go from B*A*P*S* with Halle Berry to Holiday Heart with Alfre Woodard and Ving Rhames. I can do something like Jackie’s Back. I like touching all kinds of things and whatever speaks to me I’m going to go in that direction.
The Meteor Man is also celebrating its 25th anniversary this year…
Yes, I am Meteor Man. (Laughs)
Would you ever consider re-entering the comic book world now that Black Panther became a huge thing? Or would you want to play a Marvel or DC character?
Let me say this, I’ve always lived and thought differently. Twenty-five years ago when I was thinking about superheroes everybody thought I had lost my mind and said, ‘How do you go from The Five Heartbeats to Meteor Man and all these blonde hair villains?’ And I was just thinking because I love superheroes. The only thing I’ll say is I know I planted a lot of seeds back then that people would say, ‘We could do this, it is possible.’ When I looked at Black Lightning or Luke Cage or Black Panther, I know they’re my cinematic sons and daughters because the seeds came many years ago that the studios would look and say, ‘Hey, this content could be created for this audience.’
You also directed Carmen: A Hip Hopera, which is another one of my favorites and one of the first times we heard Beyoncé rapping and now she’s full-blown rapping on her album Everything is Love. Did you get a chance to listen to it? What are your thoughts on it?
Let me say this, Beyoncé came in to audition because MTV… they didn’t know if they wanted her for the part and I had to fight for her. I’ve got to tell you, in her audition, I saw her go to such levels where she pushed it really hard and was fearless. I went back and I said, ‘You know, she’s got to do it. She’s the one.’ And it’s interesting because now to see her at the superstar level it was that same tenacity that I saw in the room that day. I just love watching her soar.
That’s crazy you had to fight for her. I can’t imagine that happening now.
And sadly the great Aretha Franklin just passed. I don’t know if you’d have any memories or stories with her you wanted to share?
I do have a story. It’s so funny because I went to David Ruffin’s funeral because I told you David Ruffin, and you’ll see this in the documentary, he really affected me. I love his voice, like this is the man. And at David Ruffin’s funeral, I sat next to Aretha Franklin and we were really both emotional and Michael Wright called me to go and so we were all there together. And afterward, she [Franklin] said, ‘You want to come by my house? I’ll cook you guys some dinner.’ Because we had just flown in to go to the service and we were going to go back to the airport. And she cooked us a soul food meal you would not believe.
It’s like collard greens, and macaroni and cheese, and corn muffins from scratch. The only thing I remember was how like, you know, when you’re raised well, you just get one plate of food and then you go, ‘Thank you so much,’ and they go ‘Would you like some more?’ and you’re supposed to say ‘No.’ So I say ‘Oh no, I’m fine’ and she goes, ‘You better get it. I can tell you want some more food.’ She stuffed my plate and we laughed because I’m like, ‘Yes, this food is good, but I don’t want to be greedy like when Robert Townsend came to my house. He’s so greedy, he ate three plates.’ But that’s my memory of her. What an amazing artist, you know? What an amazing artist.
What’s next for you? What projects are you working on?
I’m crazy busy. This year I directed an episode of Love Is_ on the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), I did the second episode. I had the best time. I love Mara Brock Akil. Then I’m working on Black Lightning, I‘m doing a recurring character on there and I’m directing an episode. I’m about to do a pilot I wrote for BET. It’s a gospel Twilight Zone. It’s just gospel music done in a very dramatic way and I’ll start shooting that. Just a lot of stuff I’m juggling and having fun.
Awesome. I’m trying to picture how does a gospel Twilight Zone look on screen. I can hear all the sounds but how will it look?
Well, it’s going to be very theatrical. It’s almost going to be like theatre and Broadway mixed together, but I’m going to put a twist on it.