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Michael Clarke Duncan’s last movie: the director shares memories

Robert Townsend

Robert Townsend

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Updated: February 14, 2013 6:27AM

Robert Townsend’s life almost ended at age 16 when he took a wrong turn coming home from school.

“I grew up on the West Side of Chicago. and it was so dangerous that I’d run home from school all the way. I had my route mapped out. I’d run all the way around Kostner and come down Cicero.”

One day, he ran down the wrong alley on Madison Street.

“I ran smack into a gang initiation. A guy was on the ground with a gun in his face and gang members all around him. When I was spotted, one of the gang guys looked at me and said, ‘We got another one,’ ” Townsend recalls.

“That meant that I would be the second victim.”

What saved his life was his own simple act of kindness. “A few days before, I was playing basketball at one of the parks in Chicago. We were picking teams and I picked a short, little guy to be on my team.

“It turns out that he was the leader of the gang,” says Townsend. “He saw me standing there and saved my life in that alley. He said, ‘Let him go.’ ”

The director, known for films including “The Five Heartbeats” and “Hollywood Shuffle,” tells this story during a break from a movie he’s filming in Miami. The emotions of that day were never forgotten. In fact, they fueled his new film “In the Hive,” which also marks the last performance of Chicago native Michael Clarke Duncan, who died in 2012.

“In the Hive” (opening Feb. 1) is about a 16-year-old named Xtra Keys who lives in a world of violence. He ends up at an unorthodox alternative school called the Hive, filled with other kids who have been shoved aside by society because of bad grades, discipline issues or worse. The school is their final chance before a life behind bars.

Loretta Devine plays Ms. Inez, the Hive’s director. The role earned her an NAACP award. Duncan plays her assistant.

“It’s based on real things that happened at a school in North Carolina,” says Townsend. “I also love teaching people and giving them a glimpse into a new world.”

The world of last chances is one that Townsend knows from his youth in Chicago. “Some of my friends made it off those streets of Chicago — some didn’t,” he says. “This film is a tribute to all of them and to all kids who grow up rough. Where I grew up there were gangs on every street corner.”

How did he avoid a life of crime? Townsend just sighs.

“I avoided a bad life with God,” he says. “Even as a teenager, I was in church and prayed a lot. God watched over me. I’m very spiritual.”

He’s alarmed by recent crime statistics in his hometown.

“The murder rate in Chicago is so crazy,” he says. “As a filmmaker, I feel one of my responsibilities is to do stories that reach millions of people, which will happen when this film hits TV. I want to send out a message of hope.

“Anyone can turn their life around.”

Duncan was a case in point: a Chicago ditchdigger who became an Oscar-nominated Hollywood star.

Ask Townsend for his memories of Duncan and his voice becomes thick.

“I’ll never forget the day we did a scene for ‘In the Hive’ where Michael has this boy in a corner and talks to him about choices. It was important for him to get that scene right. Michael even talked to me about growing up on the South Side of Chicago. He said, ‘Robert, these kids need help.’ ”

On the set, the normally friendly Duncan became quite serious before his first take of this scene. As Townsend remembers it, “He announced to the crew, ‘I don’t want to hear anyone’s cell phone. We’re not going to mess this up. If anyone messes this up, you will have to deal with me.’ ”

Duncan’s fiancee, Omarosa Manigault (“The Apprentice”), asked Townsend for a special favor.

“She asked me to show that exact scene from this movie at the funeral. She said, ‘This is Michael’s last movie and I’m so proud of it.’

“At the funeral, we showed the scene and Tom Hanks, Loretta Devine and Jay Leno were so moved. Everyone was moved. I was crying like a baby,” Townsend says.

The reaction at the end of the clip stunned him.

“When the film faded, everyone at Michael Clarke Duncan’s funeral stood to give him a standing ovation.”

Big Picture News Inc.

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