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The family man

Robin Hamilton
The family man
Robert Townsend stars in “Of Boys and Men” a drama focusing on three boys growing up in Chicago. (Photo: Roxbury Film Festival)

With “Of Boys and Men,” Robert Townsend looks inward to examine the ties that bind

Townsend (center) says he gravitated toward the script for “Of Boys and Men,” co-starring Angela Bassett (top left), because of its setting: the west side of Chicago, where he himself was raised by a single mother. (Photo courtesy of the Roxbury Film Festival) 

Say this about Robert Townsend: He has become a longstanding presence in Hollywood and has been able to work as a director, actor and businessman on his own terms.

“If you get a chance to step up to the plate,” Townsend says, “you want to say something. It matters.”

Townsend will be screening his film “Of Boys and Men” at the 10th Annual Roxbury Film Festival on July 31. The film, co-starring Angela Bassett and Victoria Rowell, is a drama that focuses on three boys growing up on the west side of Chicago. The family crisis depicted in the film forces each child to make a choice that will determine what kind of man each will become.

“I was sent the screenplay and gravitated towards the script,” he explains. “I liked it because of the Chicago setting, and I had been trying to find a project.”

And this one resembled his own life. One of four children, Townsend was raised by a single mother on the west side of Chicago. He knew all of his siblings had to make decisions that could change the trajectory of their lives.

During his teenage years, Townsend took the path of performer and stand-up comedian.

“My first break came when I did ‘A Soldier’s Story’ with Denzel Washington,” Townsend says. “My second was when I did ‘Hollywood Shuffle.’”

He says he financed “Hollywood Shuffle” himself. The movie tackled stereotypes plaguing African Americans in the movie industry and became an instant classic. His success continued on both the big and small screen, including “The Five Heartbeats,” as well as “Carmen: A Hip-Hopera.”

The productions were well received, but Townsend wanted to do more by creating a greater outlet. At one point, he remembers lamenting, “Why are we fighting for such little space? Why not create our own channel?”

So he poured his money, time and effort into the Black Family Channel. The channel touted itself as the African American cable network showcasing family entertainment. He wanted the network to be a softer alternative to BET.

“I think like an entrepreneur mostly,” he says. “When I saw [BET founder] Bob Johnson, I thought like him.”

Running a network was harder than he imagined, though. Funds were limited. Space in the cable field was — and still is — competitive.

“If you can build your own network, it can work,” he explains. “It’s so much money to keep that on the air. It wasn’t hard to find programming. It’s just having the money.”

The network lasted only eight short years. Townsend says he wasn’t discouraged, and continues to create films with impact. He recently completed a film in Toronto called “Phantom Punch,” and is completing a documentary on African American comedians called “Why We Laugh.” Bill Cosby, Chris Rock and the NAACP’s Julian Bond are part of the film.

Townsend laughs when asked why he hasn’t succumbed to a lot of buffoonery that inhabits much of Hollywood, particularly when it comes to the portrayal of blacks.

“I don’t say ‘yes’ to a lot of crap,” he says. “When I put my name on something, I really believe in it.”

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