There was a time early in Robert Townsend's career when he might have spoofed the "urban high school trying to make a difference" movie. His new film, "In the Hive" (opening at the Chatham 14 Theaters on Friday and playing this weekend on BET) certainly has all the conventions of the genre: disaffected students from dysfunctional families; the "last chance" to make something of their lives; noble teachers determined to help turn their lives around
But Townsend, director of the groundbreaking satire "Hollywood Shuffle," plays it straight in an impassioned film grittier than anything on his already eclectic resume ("The Five Heartbeats," "Meteor Man").
"I have the utmost respect for teachers," Townsend said in a phone interview on a day off from shooting his first romantic comedy, "Playin' for Love." "They have the hardest job, they don't make the most money, and they are responsible for all these young minds."
"In the Hive" takes its inspiration from an actual North Carolina alternative school where the hardest cases, kicked out of their local schools and institutions, are placed. Newcomer Jonathan McDaniel stars as rebellious student Xtra Keys, a gang member whose father is in prison and whose overwhelmed mother trades sex for grocery money. But under the nurturing spirit of school director Mrs. Inez and her formidable assistant, Hollis, Xtra not only finds role models, but perhaps the strength to become one.
It is a testament to the fact-based story and to the script (written by another Chicagoan and frequent Townsend collaborator Cheryl L. West) that Townsend was able to attract a grade-A ensemble to portray the adult characters, including Loretta Devine as Mrs. Inez, in a performance that earned her an NAACP Image Award nomination, Vivica A. Fox as Xtra's mother, and, in what would be his last role, Oscar nominee Michael Clarke Duncan as Hollis. Duncan died in September at age 54.
"I had known Michael over the years from different award shows and basketball games," Townsend said. "It's bittersweet for me to watch the movie because Michael's not with us anymore. You just never think that when you're doing a movie that will be the last time you see a person. He was a gentle, beautiful man with a big heart and big character."
Townsend and Duncan shared a Chicago bond — Townsend grew up on the West Side, Duncan on the South Side — but also a mission to help kids caught up in the cycle of drugs and violence that they managed to escape. "It was always the same conversation," Townsend said. "It was, 'How do we save these kids?'"
A pivotal scene in "In the Hive" is Hollis' climactic confrontation with students about the choices they make in life and the dire future that probably awaits many in the classroom. It is a scene in which Duncan's commanding presence is brought to bear.
Duncan's fiancee, Omarosa Manigault, star of the first season of "The Apprentice," was moved enough to ask Townsend if she could screen that scene from the uncompleted film at Duncan's memorial service. "That is my favorite scene in the film," she said in a phone interview. "So when Robert called (after Duncan died) and asked if there was anything he could do, that's what I asked for. It was the last thing I played at the service. It got a standing ovation. There wasn't a dry eye."
Manigault said she had encouraged Duncan to be in the low-budget film, though he was filming "Green Lantern" and was also committed to other projects. But she was moved by West's script. "I hadn't seen anything that powerful come across (his) desk," she said.
Manigault will be featured on "All-Star Celebrity Apprentice," which premieres March 3 on NBC. She will be competing on behalf of the Chicago-based Sue Duncan (no relation to Michael) Children's Center, whose after-school program Michael attended daily growing up and credited with having a positive impact on his life.
"Very much like his character in the film, helping disadvantaged kids was a priority for Michael," she said. "He lived it out loud. We have a string of young men that Michael was mentoring. One of them (Qasim Clarke) wanted to be an actor. Michael flew him up from Washington, D.C., to be in the movie. Michael told me that somebody did it for him, so he wanted to pay it forward."
"In the Hive" has been described, Townsend said, as "Menace II Society" and "Boyz N the Hood" with hope. Hope is in short supply on screen these days, he observed. "When I was a kid, my dad wasn't there, but I had my TV dads," he said. "My life lessons came from 'The Andy Griffith Show' and 'Father Knows Best.' Television is not the baby sitter you want it to be today because of these reality shows and so much other negative stuff. Through a movie, I can perhaps reach all the Xtras in real life and hopefully it will make them blink and think about the cycle they're caught up in."
"In the Hive" was financed in part through grants and sponsorships. "It's a small film, but I'm proud of it," Townsend said.
"When the economy gets rough and the studios pull back on making movies, they pull back probably first on movies with people of color," Townsend said, and added with a laugh, "They're not making that many anyway. We just have to continue to do what we do. I love telling stories, and I'll always figure out a way (to do so)."
"In the Hive" plays at 7 p.m. Saturday, 9:30 a.m. Sunday on BET.