“Going Against the Grain”

Laura Westerhold

Filmmaker Robert Townsend greeted the packed Love Auditorium on Tuesday evening with a loud and cheerful, “HELLO!” He immediately won over the audience by impersonating such personalities as Humphrey Bogart and Bill Cosby.

He told his life story, which began as a child growing up on the west side of Chicago with an absent father. His mother, raising four children, feared the recruitment of gangs and basically holed Townsend up in his house where he watched everything on television. He illustrated this by imitating all the characters from the Wizard of Oz, speaking rapidly in French for a few moments and acting out the role of dog hero Lassie talking to his boy companion: he barked, then said, “What’s that, Lassie? Timmy’s in the hood?” and even rolled on the ground.

His highly successful career as an actor and film producer began in the fifth grade, when he watched the Royal Shakespeare Company act out the Shakespeare plays he was supposed to read for school. When he had to act them out in class, he impersonated the zealous deliveries he had watched on the films, and his teacher immediately recognized Townsend’s deep passion and talent.

After playing a multitude of roles as “pimps,” Townsend said, he realized that men and women of color in the media would like to play “the real guy, the regular guy, the lead guy, the guy who falls in love and the guy who falls out of love.”

Townsend said that, at a time in his life when he was struggling, he decided to “go against the grain.” He was auditioning for a role as an extra in a Pepsi commercial alongside twenty other people. When the group was told to look to the right at an imaginary frisbee being tossed, he looked to the left, and when they were supposed to look left, he looked right. Ultimately, he made himself stand out enough to gain the lead role in the commercial.

Standing out was an important part of what has made Townsend successful, and he has chosen to stand out in roles he believes in.

“You can say yes to a lot of stuff,” Townsend said, “But when it’s all said and done, what are you creating?”

Playing the stereotyped role gets old, and Townsend summed that message up in the first movie he produced, Hollywood Shuffle. He had saved $60,000 from minor roles, and although he said he blew through it quickly, he managed to acquire enough money to finish the film in ten days. In total, it cost only $100,000 and made roughly $10 million. The film made a joke out of the stereotypes that he had encountered as an actor.

Townsend acknowledges that stereotypes are offensive.

“Comedians take pain and make it funny,” he said.

Because he laughs so easily at that stereotype of “pimp” that he encountered early in his career, everyone found it easier to laugh at whatever stereotype may apply to him or her.

“I found him to be charismatic, yet down to earth, intelligent and hilarious,” sophomore Alex Spicehandler said. “I think he is right that the balance in Hollywood films is off, and Hollywood certainly does not represent all races or genders equally. But, it is inspiring to know that talented and passionate people like him are out there helping to fix that.”