Not all that far away from New Jack City lives Meteor Man. He's N the 'hood, but he's definitely not one of the Boyz. He's no Menace II Society, and he's not into posses or "juice." Unlike Superfly, he can really fly. His brand of justice may not be poetic, but it's swift.
Meteor Man, as presented in the movie of the same name opening Friday by writer-director Robert Townsend, is actually inner-city schoolteacher Jefferson Reed. When an emerald meteor strikes Reed (Townsend) and melts into his body, he becomes possessed with the power to fly, repel bullets, and read and memorize a book just by touching its cover. Meteor Man uses those super powers to battle black-on-black crime in his community.
In the same vein, Townsend is using his artistic and producing powers to battle what he calls "black-on-black film and television crime."
"There are a lot of stereotypes and lots of negative images in film and television that are now being created by black people," said Townsend, 36, as he sat in the conference room of his Tinsel Townsend Studios in Hollywood. "It used to be that people said, 'How can the white man do this to us?' Now you hear people crying, 'How can the black man do this to us?' "
Townsend--who first came to prominence as a filmmaker in 1987 with "Hollywood Shuffle," a comedic, semi-autobiographical look at the stereotyped roles white producers force African-Americans to play--flashed a wide smile and laughed at the irony. But seconds later, the smile was gone.
"There just seem to be a lot of people who don't have concerns or don't care," Townsend said. "The images that are out there, everyone is responsible for. If black people say, 'Well, a black person is doing it,' and they look away, they're just as guilty, because if a white person were putting out the same images, everyone would be up in arms."
Townsend said he is determined to fight black-on-black crime--on screen and off. "Meteor Man"--a $20-million PG-rated adventure--is one of his weapons. The MGM film has no profanity or explicit violence and is a marked departure from other summer African-American films such as "Poetic Justice" and "Menace II Society."
"This is the first fairy tale for minority children," he said. "Minorities in this kind of movie are always the sidekick, the second banana. They never save the day. What effect does that have on a child's self-esteem? With this film, hopefully they'll be a generation of children that will have a hero that looks just like them, that is 100% hero."
His other weapon is "Townsend Television," a variety show premiering Sept. 12 at 7 p.m. on Fox. The show will be an extension of Townsend's "Partners in Crime" comedy and music specials that have aired on HBO. He plans to mix elements of traditional variety shows with an edgier sensibility, satire, music and political humor.
"I'm a modern-day vaudevillian, and that side of me has been locked up," Townsend said. "A lot of times people don't even know I do characters. They think Robert Townsend is just a filmmaker. So now I'll get a chance to just go crazy every week."
He hopes his show will serve as an alternative to situation comedies featuring African-Americans and other shows such as HBO's "Def Comedy Jam."
"There is no balance," Townsend said. "When you see all the movies and television shows to find out what represents African-Americans, the stuff is so small and so narrow. I grew up in the inner city, but I don't remember anywhere near the profanity and the violence I see on screen. I think it glamorizes it. If kids live in the inner city and they have a hopeless bleak reality, what's so exciting about going to the movies and seeing characters with hopeless bleak realities?"
However, Townsend stopped short of criticizing specific black films or artists:
"I can't blast my fellow artists or filmmakers. Everyone has worked really hard to get to where they have gotten. Someone else has got to speak up and say, 'That's not right.' My role in the whole scheme of things is to bring some kind of balance. When the current is going in the other direction, when everyone else is doing cheap stuff, Robert Townsend will say, 'I think I'll do a PG film.' "
Although "Meteor Man" has a predominantly black cast and features rappers Naughty by Nature and Cypress Hill as "Bloods" and "Crips," respectively, the film presumably had no trouble being booked in its first weekend at the Cineplex Odeon Universal City Cinemas, which banned "Posse" earlier this year and John Singleton's "Poetic Justice" during its opening weekend. A spokesman for the chain said at the time that the ban was due to a fear of gang violence similar to an outbreak at the theater when Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood" opened in 1991.
"I think it's ridiculous and racist," Townsend said of the "Poetic Justice" ban, which has since been lifted. "There are a lot of movies like 'The Godfather' where violence broke out in the theaters. It just seems to be sensationalized when it comes to African-Americans. John Singleton should be able to make all kinds of movies. It shouldn't be, 'Oh, no. From the director of 'Boyz N the Hood' comes 'Dennis the Menace II Society.' Get all the police out there.' " He laughed.
As for Townsend's own film career, he said he will continue writing and thinking of ideas while working on "Townsend Television." Among the features on the show will be short films with regular characters such as Nigel Spider, a British detective working in the inner city, and Ike Wallace, a parody of "60 Minutes' " Mike Wallace. Townsend's version of the show will be called "6 Minutes."
The joke has some edge to it. "Townsend Television" is being put against "60 Minutes" on Sundays.
"It's not like Fox said, 'Beat "60 Minutes" out of the box or you're off the air,' " he said. "My show will offer an alternative, a party every week. '60 Minutes' has been around for 25 years and they definitely have their audience."
He paused and smiled. "I mean, I watch '60 Minutes.' Of course, now I'll tape it and watch it later. All the TVs in my house will be tuned to 'Townsend Television.' "