It's been a long time since we've seen a film from Robert Townsend. The actor-turned-director made a big indie splash back in the late 80s with Hollywood Shuffle, his entertaining critique of Hollywood's fear of black actors. However, after less successful theatrical follow-ups like The Five Heartbeats, The Meteor Man, and B.A.P.S., Townsend has spent the last decade directing primarily for television. But in his new film, the moving In The Hive, Townsend works with perhaps the finest screenwriter he's yet had. The adroit Cheryl L. West decorates a somewhat standard structure with extremely believable dialogue and thus raises Townsend's movie up a few notches. The director still has a mildly bland visual style, but with this screenplay and the excellent actors that bring it to life, he emerges with a career best here.
In The Hive takes its inspiration from a real (and now defunct) L.A. haven for troubled black teenagers. This refuge from the merciless streets offers a second chance to kids who've either been left behind or who have, themselves, given up on the system. Miss Inez (the wonderful Loretta Devine) provides the tough-talking motherly presence, while Mr. Hollis (Michael Clarke Duncan) strong-arms the kids with a well-muscled, scared-straight brand of authority. There's a mousy white teacher (Ali Liebert) who struggles to understand her charges' reduction of everything to either a joke or a reason to throw down. And each of these educators set their sights on one of their most promising students, a steadfast gangbanger with a proclivity for mathematics (Jonathan McDaniel). Actually, we spend as much time with McDaniel's Xtra Keys as we do at The Hive, and with him we're introduced to his trick-turning mother (Vivica A. Fox), his confused girlfriend (Jontille Girard), and his jailed father (Roger Guenveur Smith). All of this might sound like standard fare, but in the hands of screenwriter West, it's all made fresh and strikingly real. And, at the same time, Townsend's low-budget look to the piece helps in transmitting a never overplayed verisimiltude to these settings.
The director is lucky to be working with such a solid group of actors. Seasoned pros Devine, Duncan, Fox and Smith each deliver striking performances, as one might expect. But the newcomers here are equally accomplished, with McDaniel in particular rising to the occasion and offering a welcome debut. The movie rests on his shoulders, and he doesn't shirk away from providing the requisite anger, sadness and defiant pride for which the role calls. Also notable is Tre C. Roberts as the reading-and-writing deficient Que, whose major scene involves the delivery of a long-delayed mini-autobiography to his shaky white teacher; this is one of In The Hive's most thankfully tearful segments. Townsend's new film is not perfect, but like many movies at this year's Atlanta Film Festival, it valuably points eyes towards a segment of the population that we rarely get to see on the movie screen. With a virtuous tongue and a brave ending that underlines this strangled world's hopes and dangers, In The Hive is the sort of film we need more of.