Burnett and Townsend share their experiences about the film industry

Burnett and Townsend share their experiences about the film industry
April 23
00:00 2015
(Above: Photo by Erin Mizelle for The Chronicle- Film director Robert Townsend speaks to an audience attending an event during the RiverRun Film Festival in Winston-Salem on Monday, April 20.)

An audience of roughly 50 people shared laughter, experience and the love of film with esteemed film directors Charles Burnett and Robert Townsend on Tuesday night, April 21.

The 2015 RiverRun Festival hosted Townsend and Barnett for an in-depth conversation, moderated by film producer and professor Dale Pollock about the industry, as part of the festival’s 2015 Spotlight on Black American Cinema, which looks back at the works of black filmmakers between 1971 and 1991.

Both have films featured at the festival.

Townsend, an actor-turned-director, has been nominated for over 30 NAACP Image Awards and has directed “Hollywood Shuffle,” “Holiday Heart,” “The Five Heartbeats,” “The Meteor Man” and “Eddie Murphy: Raw.” He spoke about his relationship with his mentor, Sidney Poitier.

Townsend said he can recall reaching out to Poitier shortly after he became famous and having lunch with him. That lunch, he said, has shaped him to create positive roles for African-American’s in Hollywood.

“I asked him how he got to have dignity in the ‘50s when he was making his movies. He said ‘The power to say no. I did not accept every role that came along. I made sacrifices.’ That always stayed with me because I loved what he has done. I’ve been really careful and tried to select movies that I believed in,” he said.

Burnett is best known for his works “To Sleep with Anger,” “Killer of Sheep” and “Glass Shield.” Killer of Sheep later became one of the first 50 films to be selected for the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry.

“I wanted to make a film that spoke to the community and could be used for social means and debate,” Burnett said of “Killer of Sheep.” “It was made to be shown in the community. It was never intended for theatrical release.”

Despite that, the film is thought to be one of the best films of the decade (‘80s), according to Pollock.

Pollock asked both filmmakers about their reaction to Blaxploitation then and now.

Burnett said that most people at the University of California-Los Angeles film school had a negative reaction to the time period.

“That’s one of the reasons we made the films we did. We tried to focus on a more accurate picture of the black community. I think it just reassured what we wanted to do,” he said. “Hollywood exploited it too far and they didn’t support all of the images.”

Townsend Said that the images that came out in the ‘70s fed African-Americans and showed them as superheroes against “the man,” but if you were weak, you got sucked in to wanting to be what you saw on the screen.

“I think that it affected me to want to right that wrong,” he told the audience. “Hollywood offers you the roles they want you to do and not the roles you always want to do.”

He said that the reality shows of today could be considered the same thing.

“Whatever you watch on television, it gets into your DNA. It gets into your ear gates, your eye gates and your spirit. So if you see all these beautiful women of color acting out, throwing drinks, calling each other the B-, fighting and tussling, you’re going to say ‘oh that’s acceptable behavior.’ There was a time that you wanted television to be the baby-sitter, now you don’t.”

RiverRun runs through April 26. For more information about the festival, visit

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Chanel Davis

Chanel Davis

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