In one of his earliest forays into acting, Townsend played a small but stirring role in the military drama A Soldier's Story (1984). Still, he remained largely dissatisfied with the types of roles traditionally offered to black actors.
To fill what he saw as a void of opportunity, Townsend began financing his own projects. He went on to write, direct, produce and star in several films, including Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and The Five Heartbeats (1991) and co-created the sitcom "The Parent 'Hood," in which he starred for five seasons. Other notable directing credits include Eddie Murphy: Raw (1987).
Racial tensions flare in this gripping drama set in Louisiana at the end of World War II. When Army attorney Capt. Davenport (Howard E. Rollins Jr.) is sent to Fort Neal to investigate the murder of a black sergeant, he faces a mystery much more complex than he'd imagined. Also starring Adolph Caesar and directed by Norman Jewison from Charles Fuller's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, the film was nominated for three Academy Awards.