When Robert Townsend — who will be in Memphis on Thursday — and Spike Lee emerged as feature filmmakers in the late 1980s, the actors-writers-directors often were twinned by critics and fans hopefully anticipating a new vanguard of purposeful yet popular African-American cinema.
Arriving a year after Lee's "She's Gotta Have It," Townsend's "Hollywood Shuffle" (1987) took a comedic look at the stereotypical and demeaning roles available to black actors in the movie industry. One vignette involved a "Black Acting School" where students learned "jive" to better play pimps and criminals, while another cast Townsend as an Afrocentric superhero named "Rambro."
If the supremely talented Lee — whose "Bamboozled" (2000) might be a disgusted same-as-it-ever-was postlude to "Hollywood Shuffle" — proved to be a contentious, prickly figure, Townsend was more ingratiating. His nostalgic 1991 musical drama, "The Five Heartbeats," about the rise and fall of a Motown-like musical act, has become a beloved "mainstream cult" classic on television, while his 1993 comedy "The Meteor Man" (1993) was a kid-friendly superhero spoof. "B*A*P*S" (1997), with Halle Berry as a soul-food waitress turned "livin' large" Black American Princess, is another cable staple.
The Chicago-born Townsend is back this year with a new movie, "In the Hive," an inspirational drama based on the true story of an experimental charter school in rural North Carolina for "gangbangers" and other at-risk youths.
Thursday, the 55-year-old director brings the movie to the opening night of the 13th annual On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Fest, a program of close to 100 features, documentaries, shorts, workshops and other events. The festival takes place through April 22, mostly at Malco locations, with free parties and concerts each night at Wet Willie's on Beale Street.
Townsend says the opening-night event may represent his first public appearance in Memphis. He will be accompanied by "In the Hive" star Vivica A. Fox, and he and the actress will introduce the movie and answer questions after the screening.
Festival organizers this year wanted "to make sure we included the whole Memphis community," said On Location: Memphis vice president Angela Green.
"We hope everybody will come to all the events," she said, "but we worked to have programming that might have special appeal for the African-American community, the Indian community, the Hispanic community, the Asian community, the senior community..."
Fox's "In the Hive" co-stars include Michael Clarke Duncan, Roger Guenveur Smith and Loretta Devine as "Mrs. Inez," a character based on Vivian Saunders, whose "tough love" approach as executive director of North Carolina's Hive Academy attracted news media attention and the interest of the filmmakers.
Two movies with Memphis origins, "The Blind Side" and the Oscar-winning documentary "Undefeated," tell similar stories of inner-city uplift, but in both cases the adult role models are white while the troubled teenagers are black. Is "In the Hive" meant to be a corrective to this meme?
"First off, I love both of those movies," Townsend says. "I love 'The Blind Side,' and 'Undefeated' had me crying like a baby. And in 'Undefeated,' that coach (Bill Courtney) made a real sacrifice to do what he did. But I'll put it like this: In this war that is going on in which we are trying to save these kids, allies are going to come in different colors and shapes and sizes. In this case, in this true story, we had mostly black teachers, but I don't like to look at movies in terms of 'black' and 'white.'"
He says "In the Hive," which was shot last year in Los Angeles, always was intended to be timely, but it suddenly may be more topical than ever.
"Right now, with all the news about Trayvon Martin, everybody is wondering about these issues. If you see a young black man in a hoodie, are you afraid of him? What do you do with these young men? The movie opens up some interesting dialogue."
"In the Hive" is rated R because of its profanity, but Townsend says its message makes the film appropriate viewing for families and mature kids.
Although he never was able "to catch lightning in a bottle" like filmmaker Tyler Perry, who became a multimillionaire and a one-man industry thanks to his cross-dressing box-office lightning rod, Madea, Townsend said he believes he was "ahead of the curve" with "Hollywood Shuffle" and some of his earlier projects.
"Spike was in New York and I was in Los Angeles, and we were both renegades," he says. "People were saying, 'To make movies is so hard,' but I figured out a way, he figured out a way, and we've been catalysts over the years for other filmmakers, because sometimes people need a symbol to show something is possible."
Even so, funding an independent film like "In the Hive" can be tough. "If I wanted to make an all-out crazy comedy, the studios would say yes, yes and yes. But my body of work is so eclectic, there's not one particular tone. This film has humor, but it's a film about what's really going on. This is a film that will touch your heart."
In that respect, "In the Hive" harks back to an era that predates the careers of Townsend and Lee, the director says.
"I grew up on great movies," he says. "I grew up on Frank Capra and Elia Kazan. So when I think about the movies I make, I don't think they're for a black audience; I think they're for anybody who enjoys movies."
On Location: Memphis International Film & Music Fest
Thursday through April 22 at the Malco Paradiso, Studio on the Square and Ridgeway Four, offering dozens of features, documentaries, shorts and music videos from around the world, plus panels and parties.
The opening-night film, "In the Hive," is at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Paradiso, 584 S. Mendenhall. Appearing in person: director Robert Townsend and actress Vivica A. Fox. Tickets: $10.
Festival pass: $60. For passes, advance tickets to Thursday's screening, more information and a full schedule, visit onlocationmemphis.org.