By// Mariah Craddick
Robert Townsend keeps it real, whether he’s in front of the camera or behind it. The quadruple threat — actor, writer, director, and producer — has given us some of the most memorable films of the last 20 years, including Hollywood Shuffle, The Meteor Man, and The Five Heartbeats. With his latest film In the Hive, he hopes to not only make something significant, but also speak truth on one of our nation’s greatest epidemics: urban gun and gang violence.
Starring Hollywood heavyweights Loretta Devine, Vivica A. Fox, and Michael Clarke Duncan, In the Hive is now available for purchase on DVD. Townsend spoke with JETmag.com about the movie, his relationship with Duncan, and his thoughts on Black Hollywood today.
Tell us a little about what In the Hive is about.
In the Hive is a movie about hope. It’s about what’s going on right now in this country. We’re losing all of these kids on the streets to violence, gangs. This film is the story of a real school in North Carolina and a remarkable woman, Ms. Vivian Saunders who was able to find a way to reach these kids. It’s one part tough love and one part sheer determination to make a difference. The language and the situations are very edgy and it’s my first R-rated film. The cast is wonderful. Vivica Fox plays the mother in the piece. Michael Clarke Duncan is incredible in one of his final performances as Mr. Hollis. And Loretta Devine stars as Ms. Inez who is based on Vivian Saunders.
How did you end up hearing about this school in North Carolina?
I was working with a gentleman, Rey Ramsey. Rey runs a nonprofit out of Washington, D.C. called One Economy. I was working with Rey on a web series called “Diary of A Single Mom” with Monica Calhoun, Billy Dee Williams, and Richard Roundtree. Anyway, they helped fund the real “Hive” in North Carolina. Rey was like, ‘Robert, they’re getting these incredible results and turning these kids lives around. Do you think there’s a movie here?’ So I said let me go down there and see. I jumped on a plane and went to North Carolina to interview the kids, teachers, Ms. Saunders. As they started telling me their stories, I said there’s definitely a movie.
What was it like working with Michael Clarke Duncan on this movie? Did you get to develop a relationship with him?
I did. Michael and I had seen each other over the years and one thing we would always share was Chicago. I’m from the West Side and Michael was from the South Side so we understood the streets and what it is to do something with your life and make something out of yourself.
What’s your favorite memory of working with him?
My fondest memory of Michael was when there was this big scene he had where he had four pages of dialogue and it’s this really powerful scene that the writer, Sheryl L. West, wrote. That day when I came on set, he had the actors and crew assembled in the middle of the room talking. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ And Michael said, “This is an important scene and I need everybody to be on point today. No laughing, no joking. I want this to be powerful. I want this movie to be really powerful and I need you all to work with me today.” No actor normally does that, the director does. And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I love him.’ Watching the movie now is kind of bittersweet. We just had a screening in Chicago and I’m sitting in the back of the room crying. I’m looking at Michael and he’s so good in the movie but it’s like, I can’t high five him or say thank you. But at least his final piece of work is going to really matter on a lot of different levels.
Like you said, you’re from Chicago, so what’s your opinion on all of the gun and gang violence taking place there and across the country?
For me, that’s the reason why I did In the Hive because it’s about that issue: kids, violence, guns. I do what I do in hopes that it will lead to a beautiful discussion and lead people to take action. I don’t think there’s one solution to the problem. When I had the screening in Chicago, I was in a room with 500 teachers talking about In the Hive and teachers saying, ‘We want to use this as a lecturing tool.” That makes me feel good because maybe there is somebody that is afraid of a gang banger but knows that they’re still somebody’s kid and there is still a way to reach them.
What’s your take on Black Hollywood today versus back when you did Hollywood Shuffle?
It’s the best of times and it’s the worst of times. On one end, you have some breakout shows like Scandal and different people are doing really interesting work right now. We just need more of it. People get mad at Tyler Perry, but he should be able to do what he wants to do. Hollywood thinks that since [Black audiences] have Tyler Perry that we don’t need anymore movies from Spike or Robert. As opposed to, there should be more movies for everybody. There’s always room for more.
So, it will be 20 years since The Meteor Man‘s first release this August. Do you have any plans for a commemoration?
I had not even thought about that. Maybe this fall. There’s a whole group of people who always come up to me going, ‘You know Meteor Man’ was my superhero.’ I haven’t thought to do anything, but now that you’ve said that, maybe I will.
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I just really want people to support the film. It’s important because of where we are as a society. And then, people don’t always know when I’ve directed or produced something. People will be like, ‘Holiday Heart is my favorite movie!’ and I’ll say, ‘Yeah, I directed it.’
That’s why you have to start putting your name in the title. Robert Townsend’s….
[Laughs] Exactly! I’m going to be doing that from now on; I learned from Tyler Perry.