Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Personal Hero: Robert Townsend

I have expressed my disgust for Tyler Perry and his brand of homogenized buffoonery before, but I never really considered why until recently. Why wasn't I entranced under the spell he managed to weave over the African-American community? I mean, he does give lots of exposure to black actors. And he did come from nothing and managed to establish a media empire. And yet, despite all of that, my halfway decent taste just would not submit to his cajoling. Why wasn't I caving in?

I really wondered what kept me so sure of his crappiness. And then it came to me: Robert Townsend.

Robert Townsend is ridiculously underrated. Writer, director, producer, actor. An entirely self-made man who used his films to put several African Americans in the spotlight, much like Perry. And yet, he is probably more known for his sitcom than for his films. And the sitcom is probably not that well known, either.

But the man was funny, hella funny:

He self-financed his first film Hollywood Shuffle with his credit cards (which he jokes about in the film's trailer), predating Kevin Smith by about seven years. He manages to lampoon Hollywood and it's insipid casting of African Americans before Spike Lee (and that train wreck Bamboozled). He managed to truly capture the struggle of an actor trying to make it, while not losing himself in the process. And it was damn funny, too. Let me share with you this video, which illustrates everything I loved about it (but is just the tip of the iceberg):

True, he could be held responsible for bringing the Wayans Dynasty upon us, but at least he only used one with actual comedic talent. All that other mess was the responsibility of the Unholy Ones (also known as Marlon and Shawn).

But the film that really gets me is The Meteor Man. Released in 1993, it was pretty much a box office dud. But it was also unique in that:

1) The protagonist was a black Superman pastiche that was treated halfway seriously (even with his fear of heights);

2) The entire cast was made up of prominent African Americans performers, like Don Cheadle and James Earl Jones, and even had Cypress Hill and EVIL (and skinny!) Luther Vandross;

3) The film actually had a message about community and coming together to solve problems instead of depending on some wunderkind to do it for you.

Another video, to show what I mean:

Now how am I supposed to take Tyler Perry seriously, with his crossdressing and "good Christian black folk" stereotypes when I got Townsend actually taking chances in his films and doing stuff like this? Here is another video, where Townsend, as hero Jefferson Reed aka Meteor Man, makes the Big Point for the movie. It is actually quite moving:

Some folks still need to hear that.

After doing a few more films (including the Disney Channel Movie Up, Up and Away, which was eerily similar to the later Sky High, but had a better ending IMHO), he became the director of programming on the long-lived (1999-2007) yet little-exposed Black Family Channel (who, unlike BET and TV-One, was actually owned and operated by blacks during its entire run and did not include rap and hip-hop programming).

I wish I could go on and on, but all his movies deserve their own posts. So now I got to hunt down the Hollywood Shuffle and Meteor Man DVDs somewhere. Wish me luck.

6 brain pickings:

  1. Spot fucking on, man. Meteor Man, while deeply flawed, has some really great stuff in it. Hollywood Shuffle is simply brilliant. Thanks for dragging him out of the cellar and into the light.

  2. Shadows of DakaronJuly 3, 2008 at 1:12 AM

    Wow, I completely forgot about Meteor Man. I really liked that when it came out, despite how young and delusional I was. And Robert Townsend was a great actor. Good call, Vermillion. Way to truly define how much of a fuckwit Perry is.

  3. Hollywood Shuffle and Kentucky Fried Movie were the most influential comedic movie from my youth. Thanks for reminding me of RT's sensibilities that are severely missing from today's world.

  4. I think it could be argued that Meteor Man is as good a comedy, in its own right, as I'm Gonna Get You Sucka and Undercover Brother.

    And despite the usually bothersome tendencies of the Wayans, Don't Be A Menace To South Central While Drinking Your Juice In The Hood was a good spoof with some important messages.

    As for Perry, I never much liked him either, really. He's just not very funny.

  5. I would rather sit through a Robert Townsend movie than a Tyler Perry movie. At least Robert Townsend is, as you pointed out, funny. Tyler Perry, on the other hand, makes me want to punch him AND Medea. Both of them have that smarmy "You know I'm gonna get $20 million next February." smile.

    Still, Arsenio Hall was another funny African American comedian that faded without any assistance. David Alan Grier too. (Then again, this could be because of my blind allegiance to Amazon Women on the Moon.)

  6. Comparing Robert Townsend with TP is brilliant and shows how much of a hack TP really is. "Hollywood Shuffle" is a riot.

    Still I have to wonder what the great appeal is to TP's stuff and why he keeps raking in the big bucks for his rehashed comedies.


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