If you’re part of Generation X or older, you or someone you know may’ve quoted lines like “My office hours are from nine to five,” “I gotta fight every night to prove my love!” or “Just ’cause I have one, two, maybe three drinks sometime, what I’m an alcoholic?” You also have probably found yourself singing lines like, “Nights like this I wish raindrops would fall” or “A heart is a house for love.” Those lines and tunes from the 1991 musical drama The Five Heartbeats, which turns 25 this year, will be forever stuck in our heads and hearts.
Just four months before the release of Boyz n the Hood, The Five Heartbeats—starring writer-director Robert Townsend, Leon Robinson, Michael Wright, Tico Wells and Harry J. Lennix—thumped onto only 862 theaters throughout North America on March 29, 1991. While it didn’t open well (grossing just approximately $8,500,000 in theaters), this little film with a big heart kept beating and has since become classic Black cinema 25 years later.
EBONY.com had a chance to speak with Robert Townsend, Leon Robinson and Five Heartbeats cowriter Keenen Ivory Wayans about the story behind the story, in front and behind the camera, and the fictitious R&B legends who found a way into our hearts.
EBONY: What led you to make this film?
Robert Townsend: The Temptations broke up. I just remember, as a little kid I remember, like, “What happened there?” And it just stayed in my soul. But then there were a lot of negative images of Black men on television and in the movies. All these pimps, hustlers and thieves. I said, “The Trojan horse will be, I’m going to show you five different men of color. And they’re going to be all different so you’re going to see this spectrum. And some you will like more than others, but you’re going to see a whole world…” I wanted to show Black men differently.
EBONY: Casting-wise, what was your thought process? Were you making an effort to get new faces?
RT: I saw close to 9,000 actors. No one read the script. I would just meet actors and feel their energy. Initially, [the role of] J.T. Matthews was going to be Keenen. And then Keenen got In Living Color and left, and I was like, “Who’s going to play my brother?” Then Jackie Brown, who was the casting director, said, “Leon is the guy.” And when he came in the office, all the women were going crazy!
EBONY: Do you remember it going like that Leon?
Leon Robison: No, I was focused. [Robert laughs hysterically.]
EBONY: You know after this movie, every woman was looking for a tall, dark Leon. Did you feel that energy?
LR: It’s hard for me to say. I can’t really say that I knew that it was this movie, because at the time, the movie didn’t open up well because it wasn’t advertised well. So it actually kind of built. It was like more people knew me 10 years after The Five Heartbeats then right after it came out. I had just made history with Madonna in her video, “Like a Prayer.”
EBONY: You guys created the perfect “wing man” scenario with the “shy brother” routine. Was that something you actually did in real life? How did it come about?
RT: That was Keenen. It’s so funny, because Keenen and I would do that for real. That was our little thing early on. But Leon brought that crap to life. [laughs]
EBONY: What are your thoughts on Hollywood’s diversity problem?
RT: The bottom line is that we need more movies. Every year in Hollywood, they do close to 400 movies. Out of those 400, maybe there are nine that target the African-American audience. And out of the nine, maybe only four are worthy of Oscar consideration… We don’t want it to be “throw us a bone.” We want the performances and the craft to really be there. Some people say, “They don’t make movies like The Five Heartbeats [anymore].” We did 25, 26 drafts. We were in rehearsals for two months, dancing, singing, going over the script, and then we hit the set.
Keenan Ivory Wayans: There’s been huge advancements. Shonda Rhimes is killing it. The number of Black women in front and behind the camera has grown exponentially since I started in the business. I think equality is something that we will continue to strive for, but I think we have to always celebrate and appreciate every step forward we make and every achievement.
EBONY: Twenty-five years ago, how difficult was it to get a studio to make your film?
KIW: This was the first Black film made since the exploitation era. So it had been 20 years since a studio had made a Black film. Because Spike [Lee]’s She’s Gotta Have It was independent. Hollywood Shuffle was independent, and I’m Gonna Get You Sucka was independent.
RT: Everybody had passed on the script. This took three years to make because everybody said no.
KIW: This movie was a conscious decision on both of our parts to push ourselves to try to write something good. We really wanted to learn. And I have to give a shout out to Henry Winkler, because he taught us about writing in a way that we could really understand. With the information he gave us, we were able to have something to keep reminding ourselves to make sure we speak truth, to leap into the soul of these characters.
Fortunately for us, we’re best friends, so we understood the brother relationship. The “shy brother” stuff, that’s real. I come from a big family, so we used a lot of things that were real for us, and we kept trying to ground the movie in real honest moments. And we were really dedicated to not betraying it by doing what our instinct was, which was comedy.
Crystal Shaw King is a seasoned TV, radio and online entertainment writer. She's also a contributing editor for a social justice foundation in Los Angeles. Follow her on Twitter @crystalamberbam.