Indie Memphis Artistic Director Miriam Bale conducts an interview the virtual way with Robert Townsend. (Screen capture)
TSD’s All Over Town columnist Brianna A. Smith.

Although Indie Memphis postponed all upcoming events as a precaution to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, they still found a way to use their resources to educate and support independent filmmakers during this time.

On last Tuesday, Indie Memphis Movie Club held a virtual discussion with actor and director Robert Townsend.

Artistic Director Miriam Bale  lead the discussion; she opened the segment introducing Townsend as the “Godfather of Black Independent Film”.

Over the past 30-plus years Townsend has made a name for himself in black homes across the country as a trailblazing filmmaker who uses his talent to uplift people of color. He is the mastermind behind films such as, Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heartbeats, B*A*P*S, The Meteor Man, Holiday Heart, Eddie Murphy Raw, and one of my all -time favorite’s Carmen: A Hip Hopera.

The discussion focused mainly on his debut film Hollywood Shuffle, a satirical look at what it was like to be a black actor in Tinseltown. The film stamped Townsend’s place in the industry as a filmmaker.

“We have a lot of filmmakers tuned in today,” said Bale. “Can you share your experience in creating Hollywood Shuffle?”

Townsend was inexperienced—he didn’t go to film school and hadn’t directed a film—but he was determined to tell a story about being marginalized by the industry.

In 1984, he had a small role in the Oscar-nominated A Soldier’s Story. “I told my agent I want to do more movies like this,” said Townsend. “My agent was like, ‘Robert, they only do one black movie a year. You just did it. Be happy.′”

But Townsend wasn’t satisfied. “I thought my dream of being an artist was dying, because at the time, the only roles I was auditioning for were slaves and pimps and stereotypes of basketball players who couldn’t read,” Townsend says. “It was frustrating.”

“Then I started talking to my good friend Keenan Wayans (actor and filmmaker) about us doing a movie about our lives  and that’s how it all started.”

Townsend and Wayans wrote the script together but because the film didn’t have a studio backing, Townsend was faced with financing the film on his own. “The idea of somebody writing, directing, producing, and starring in a movie, especially a person of color, wasn’t heard of then,” said Townsend.

“Everybody said the bar was so high in Hollywood, you couldn’t get in if you didn’t have millions and millions of dollars.”

Eventually, Townsend raised $100,000 to make Hollywood Shuffle, using $60,000 he earned from acting gigs and $40,000 using credit cards.

Townsend helped to kick the door wide open for black talent in the late 80s—ushering in a fertile period of comedic and dramatic films starring black actors in complex roles that were also directed by black directors.

“I don’t want to take credit, but I just know that we planted seeds that it was okay to be funny, to write-direct-produce,” Townsend said. “When people heard the story of Hollywood Shuffle and how we did it, I think it gave inspiration to a lot of filmmakers to say, ‘If Robert can do it with a credit card, I can do it.’”

The discussion was informative and inspiring to filmmakers.

Bale closed out the conversation asking Townsend what many viewers tuned in to see, “How does someone make a film for less than $100,000 now?”

Townsend replied, “These new iPhone’s don’t need a lot of extra lights. Use your resources, find a location and write the script around that location.”

“Always remember that the acting and story telling is most important when creating a film.”

Check out the discussion here: