Townsend's '5 Heartbeats': A Filmmaker Is Born


April 13, 1991|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Ahem. For all those sniping at Mario Van Peebles over ''NewJack City,'' a bit of history is relevant. For those busy ignoring, or worse, putting down Robert Townsend for ''sloppiness'' in assembling ''The Five Heartbeats,'' this is for you.

Oscar Michaux, whose career we celebrate in February, had to )) pay out of his pocket and personally distribute his now-admired features, driving across country when there were no interstate highways and no good motels for blacks. When he died, no one replaced him, and after desegregation of downtown movies, blacks deserted the venues which gave him room to grow.

Thus, when Mr. Van Peebles' father Melvin set out, he had to go PTC France for a start. ''Story of a Three-Day Pass'' is still a black-and-white classic, but he is best remembered for ''Watermelon Man'' and ''Sweet Sweetback's Badass Song,'' which ushered in a brief new era of black-oriented features. Detective-novel readers knew the expatriate Chester Himes' ''Coffin Ed and 'Digger'' stories were serving up big slices of black culture to European audiences, but most blacks here only caught on when ''Cotton Comes to Harlem'' was set to celluloid.

Criticism killed black films during the early 1970s, and most came not from whites, but blacks.

We even came up with a label, ''Black Exploitation,'' to seal the denouement. Never mind that, as critic Clayton Riley said then, such a label arrogantly indicted the audience, not the film, for being too dumb to know what to watch. Never mind that ''Black Exploitation's'' violence, lewdness and stylish fictionalization of bad guys was and still is exceeded by what you can see on television every day. Blacks jammed theaters to see violent white films, and still do, but the purists who wrecked black filmmakers' and actors' careers during the '70s offered little comment.

What we have here, as eloquently stated in ''Cool Hand Luke,'' is a failure to communicate. A new generation of black filmmakers is at hand, with a better handle on the craft and a better shot at reasonable budgets. Shouting down black attempts to make Hollywood films in the early '70s brought a drought that is only now ending. There must be room for the Spike Lees, Robert Townsends and Warrington Hudlins to develop, expanding their reach and strengthening their control of the multiple dynamics of moviemaking.

Let's return to Mr. Townsend. On ''The Five Heartbeats,'' movie critics zeroed in on three things:

* His ambitious attempt to weave many stories together, with no tight focus on any one.

* A less-strenuous brand of camera direction some reviewers thought unambitious.

* Disappointment over his refusal to continue the biting, satirical comedy of ''Hollywood Shuffle.''

But why should anyone be restricted to repeating old triumphs? ''The Five Heartbeats'' is a thoroughly enjoyable movie. Mr. Townsend reached for a broad canvas here, much of which is too often left out. And if some scenes are restatements of Hollywood's past successes, that is to be expected. First off, those Hollywood conventions have rarely been translated for black cultural perspectives. Besides, how in the world can Mr. Townsend be expected to survive while learning the form without trying things his predecessors have already found to be successful? And frankly, his use of backlighted, moody photography is brilliant.

I first watched this film about a fictitious Sixties soul group with Samuel, a singer now working as a single after starting out with a group. The story and styles are ancient history to him, but Samuel said it was directly relevant to the people he knew.

Still, Mr. Townsend was carefully generous when he poked into the seamy corners of the entertainment business.

People often forget these days, but even as Motown was zooming on the charts, the unspoken hard line held that black entertainers' pictures could not appear on album covers. Got any old Dionne Warwick records? Take a look at ''Anyone Who Had a Heart.'' How about old Miracles -- ''Mickey's Monkey'' comes to mind. Yet when ''The Five Heartbeats'' confronted this problem, it was almost a grace note.

Ditto on drugs, or on the racism of ''cover'' recordings. Blacks during the 1950s were bitter about Elvis Presley's re-recording, lick for lick, of ''Hound Dog'' and other blues hits, but Mr. Townsend's treatment of that unaddressed resentment was more tongue-in-cheek than angry.

Moving moments came in places that, oddly, the critics didn't see: Heartbeats Duck Matthews and Johnny King counseling a despondent Dresser, whose girl is pregnant. ''Didn't you say you loved her more than anything,'' King asks, handing over his newfound wealth so Dresser can do the right thing -- in the Sixties, get married. King's parents on Amateur Night, suffering the ups and downs of hope watching their son on stage. Even at the height of conflict, J.T., Duck's brother, demands that Duck be treated with respect.

Blacks have long enjoyed whites' a-star-is-born stories, but rarely see films about blacks and the cultural idioms that put music in their daily lives. Mr. Townsend has succeeded admirably in doing just that, in a way which makes it all comprehensible to whites as well. Too bad he's not getting the audience he deserves. He's one to watch.

Garland L. Thompson is an editorial writer for The Sun.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.