Hollywood's Heartbeat: A Conversation With Robert Townsend Robert Townsend is a pioneer in Hollywood. As a writer, director and actor, he's built an extensive resume of television and film work, bringing black stories to audiences around the world.

Want to support 1A? Give to your local public radio station and subscribe to this podcast. Have questions? Find us on Twitter @1A.
NPR logo

Hollywood's Heartbeat: A Conversation With Robert Townsend

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/698637788/698645413" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
Hollywood's Heartbeat: A Conversation With Robert Townsend

1A

Hollywood's Heartbeat: A Conversation With Robert Townsend

Hollywood's Heartbeat: A Conversation With Robert Townsend

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/698637788/698645413" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

The day after she won an Academy Award for the costume design for "Black Panther," Ruth E. Carter told CNET, "I was very fortunate to come into this industry with Spike Lee and Keenen Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend during the time when black cinema was emerging again."

Townsend is a pioneer for many artists in Hollywood. As a writer, director and actor, he's built an extensive resume of television and film work, bringing black stories to audiences around the world.

In a retrospective, Vanity Fair called Townsend's 1987 movie "Hollywood Shuffle" (which he wrote, directed and starred in) "a caustic satire about the dearth of substantial roles for black and Hispanic actors in Hollywood."

The movie tells the story of an aspiring actor whose career is limited by the stereotypical roles casting directors offer him because of his race. The movie wasn't easy to make. Townsend, who was fresh off the movie "A Soldier's Story," told Vanity Fair, "My agent was like, 'Robert, they only do one black movie a year. You just did it. Be happy.′"

The same year "Hollywood Shuffle" was released, Townsend directed Eddie Murphy's popular standup special "Raw."

Townsend's next theatrical directorial release, 1991's "The Five Heartbeats," quickly became a fan favorite. It may now be headed to Broadway.

After "The Five Heartbeats," Townsend made "Meteor Man." The movie broke further ground as "the first Hollywood superhero feature spotlighting an African-American character and majority of its cast and paved the way for later incarnations of black superheroes in films and TV series like Black Panther, The Avengers, Black Lightning, and Luke Cage," as SyFy Wire notes in an interview with the star.

Townsend joined us to talk about what it takes to get movies greenlit, how he sees his influence in today's cinema and how he's navigated Hollywood for four decades.