Robert Townsend Steers Black Hollywood in New Direction

The Hollywood veteran discusses the future of African Americans in entertainment

Robert Townsend hopes his latest film, In the Hive, joins his critically acclaimed and popular works such as Hollywood Shuffle and The Five Heartbeats. (In the Hive, which premiered at the American Black Film Festival and screened at this year’s Black Enterprise/Pepsi Golf & Tennis Challenge, may be in wide release next year.)

The veteran entertainer broke into acting as an extra in Cooley High more than 30 years ago but branched into drama, writing, directing, and producing. From 2003 to 2007, the 44-year-old was president and CEO of The Black Family Channel. In 2009, he ventured into the digital world with Diary of a Single Mom, a Web series that will make the leap to television in a one-hour pilot on TV One on Oct. 9. BlackEnterprise.com spoke with the Chicago native about the future for African American entertainers and the need for a support system in the business.

Nearly 25 years after Hollywood Shuffle, what are your thoughts on the state of Black films and the roles for African Americans in mainstream movies?

Well, I think it’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. I think you do see more African Americans in roles that are nontraditional, but then we don’t have as many original stories. And so you give, you take away. So when it’s all said and done, we don’t have as many personal stories. We have more big-screen artists of color blended into the blockbusters. But we just need more balance of the personal stories.

Diary of a Single Mom has a diverse cast, so what do you think the future looks like for African Americans in mainstream television roles?

We always need more, and right now it’s a tough economic time. We don’t have that many shows, and everything is reality shows and reality expenses are so cheap. It’s an odd time for real actors and producers and directors in Hollywood because, not to take anything from reality shows but I think, hopefully, real scripted drama will return.

What do you think the chances are for more African American-centered scripted shows to get on television?

I think everything goes in cycles. I think at a certain point people are going to get tired of reality shows. Content will always be king. I think if people do quality content and figure out innovative ways to continue to create, the door will always be open.

In the tribute to Keenan Ivory Wayans during the American Black Film Festival, you discussed how you supported each other when you started out in the entertainment industry. How important is it to have that support system?

Support in this industry is really crucial because you need someone that’s a real sounding board. You need somebody that is a genuine friend. In this business at a certain point [you need to be able] to tell who is really your friend or if they want something. Keenan is a real solid friend for life.

Going back to what you said earlier about things going in cycles, do you really see that happening any time soon with reality TV?

It’s become a part of the culture. It’s cheap programming, and you can get unknown people and pay them two dollars and people want their 15 minutes of fame doing whatever it takes to be famous. So I think it is what it is. For me, I know my “godfathers” are Sidney Poitier and Bill Cosby, so it’s a charge for me to try to raise the bar when I try to create art. And that’s where I live. I love what I do!

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