Though his celebrity has never reached quite the same degree, comedian/writer/filmmaker Robert Townsend's emergence in the 1980s now looks like something of a missing link between Spike Lee and Dave Chappelle.
Townsend — who will be in Memphis Thursday presenting his new film, At the Hive, at the On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Festival — first broke through as a stand-up comic on a now-classic mid-'80s HBO "Young Comedians" special that also included future stars like Sam Kinison and Arsenio Hall. In those early stand-up appearances, Townsend stood out from his cohort — and especially megastar Eddie Murphy — for the core of near-PG-rated decency at the foundation of his approach. This was never more clear than in Townsend's appearance on the 1987 Murphy-produced Uptown Comedy Express, which also featured Hall and a young Chris Rock. Townsend's set climaxed with an actorly nightclub pick-up scenario scored by his own singing (of DeBarge's "In a Special Way") that dared to be ... sweet.
That same year, soon after Lee's game-changing debut She's Gotta Have It, Townsend leapt from the stand-up scene with his big-screen debut, Hollywood Shuffle, where he served as director, writer, and star. Playing a variation of himself as a struggling young actor trying to break into a business with limited options for black performers, Townsend peppered his personal narrative with a series of pointed comic sketches: a commercial for a "Black Acting School" where trained thespians learned to play slaves and domestics, a Siskel & Ebert spoof where a couple of teenagers sneak into a theater and review movies (they call BS on the shoot-'em-up Dirty Larry but are rapt in the face of horror film Attack of the Street Pimps). In retrospect, Hollywood Shuffle looks like a prototype for the blockbuster Chappelle's Show, and when Townsend's character, stuck playing a pimp/criminal, finally — spoiler alert — rejects the shameful shuffle for a decent job at the post office, it perhaps presages the dissatisfaction that led Chappelle to walk away from his hit show.
It also presaged Townsend's own career negotiation of the entertainment business. The follow-up, musical period piece The Five Heartbeats, was a success and a lasting cult hit, but over the years Townsend has found difficulty making personal films within the Hollywood studio system, a trajectory he shares with other black auteurs of his generation such as Charles Burnett, Mario Van Peebles, and — increasingly and disappointingly — even Lee.
And so Townsend has gone independent with his latest film, the inspirational drama In the Hive, which opens the On Location: Memphis festival at 7:30 p.m. Thursday night at Malco's Paradiso theater, with Townsend and co-star Vivica A. Fox scheduled to attend. The festival will continue throughout the weekend with nearly 100 screenings, panels, and performances at multiple venues.
In the Hive is based on a real charter school in North Carolina — the Hive Academy — that caters to at-risk boys. The film follows a new quartet of troubled students, led by 16-year-old Xtra Keys (Jonathan McDaniel), from their enrollment through most of their school year. Fox plays Xtra's embattled and deeply flawed single mother. Running the school are Michael Clarke Duncan, whose physicality is well-used but not exploited in this better-than-usual role, and the under-recognized Loretta Devine.
Though the lack of production budget and studio quality control is evident at times, In the Hive has what studio movies on similar subjects lack: perspective. Unlike most studio treatments of similar subjects — most notably the Memphis-set The Blind Side — In the Hive tells the story of struggling black characters from their own point of view rather than depicting them through the lens of white helpers conceived — even if unintentionally — as audience surrogates. This difference in perspective is palpable and fruitful in many of In the Hive's strongest moments.
Some other potential festival highlights:
Love Free or Die: This documentary about Gene Robinson, who became the Episcopal Church's first openly gay bishop, eventually forcing a dramatic change in church policy, won a Special Jury Prize earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The film follows the engaging Robinson from his exclusion at a 2008 church conference in England to the breakthrough he inspired at a church convention the following years, including his invocation at Barack Obama's inauguration and a triumphant appearance on The Daily Show. The debate over church policy on sexual orientation — in which a retired bishop steps to the microphone to come out and an exiled lesbian couple show they love the church more than it's loved them — is profoundly moving. Screens Friday, April 20th. 5:30 p.m. Studio on the Square.
Classic Hollywood Selections: The festival will feature afternoon screenings of two classics. The 1932 film Grand Hotel (1:30 p.m.) was one of the great movie-star clashes of its day, with veteran John Barrymore, in-her-prime Greta Garbo, and an up-and-coming Joan Crawford among those who cross paths at a luxury Berlin hotel. And The Adventures of Robin Hood (1 p.m.), a 1938 Technicolor treat from future Casablanca director Michael Curtiz, is simply one of the most purely enjoyable films the medium has ever produced, with Errol Flynn at his best as the titular swash-buckler and Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, and Claude Rains in support. Both films screen Friday, April 20th. Studio on the Square.
At Stake: Vampire Solutions: The festival's lone local feature is a horror film in mockumentary form from producer/director Jim Weter and writer/special-effects artist Duane P. Craig. It takes the form of a college student filming the exploits of a low-rent vampire-hunter company in northern Mississippi. On-the-job footage is mixed with deadpan talking-head interviews with the company's employees. While the acting and writing are uneven, the film mitigates its low-budget limitations by making good use of darkness, sound, and off-screen space. Screens on Friday, April 20th. 7:30 p.m. Studio on the Square.
On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Festival
Paradiso, Studio on the Square, Ridgeway Four
Thursday, April 19th-Sunday, April 22nd
For full schedule and ticketing info,