Written by | Ray Cornelius 

It’s been a minute since we’ve last seen award-winning director and actor Robert Townsend in front of the camera.  The multi-talented comedian, who starred in such classics as The Hollywood Shuffle, The Five Heart Beats, and The Parent ‘hood, is back in the spotlight with a brand new romantic dramedy  airing tonight on UP titled, Playin’ for Love.

The two-hour drama stars Townsend as Niven Banks, a cocky high school basketball coach who has just acquired the rival team’s star player, Justice “The Judge” McCoy.  However, what he didn’t bank on was McCoy’s outspoken momager, Talisa, who seems to have more control over on his basketball court than he would like. The film stars the beautiful yet stern, Salli Richard-Whitfield as Ms. McCoy and newcomer, Daniel Yorel Cooper as Justice. The film also stars the hilariously funny, Jenifer Lewis as Talisa’s friend, Alize Gates along with TV vets, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Coach Preston Reid and Esai Morales as Principal Jose Marti.

For Townsend, Playin’ for Love was conceived out of a need to help the inner-city youth of Miami, Florida’s Overtown community see that there is hope beyond the violence and poverty that cripples their neighborhood.

“I was in Miami three years ago at the American Black Film Festival and Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones approached me and said, ‘Hey Robert, you guys are on South Beach at the Ritz-Carlton but about 10-minutes away are the kids dying from violence and gangs and I wanted to know if you could help me? Could you teach them about making movies because the only thing the kids seem to respond to is music and celebrities they see on television? Could you come over and help us?’ So I said to her, ‘You know what? Why don’t we make a movie?’ I then told her that I could teach the kids how to make a movie and that they could be in the movie and learn all sides of the movie. I will even call on my Hollywood friends and make this film,” said Townsend during a brief phone interview.

After committing himself to the project, Townsend turned to a script that he had written a few years back about basketball.

“There was a script I had in my head like years ago and thought it would be a great movie for the kids because it involved basketball.  There could be cheerleaders and there could be different basketball teams. So I called Jenifer Lewis and I called Salli and called Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, Steve White and said, ‘Hey guys, this is a small project that we’re doing for the community and everybody said, yes!’”

Townsend also explained that while the film was shot entirely on a shoe-string budget, the Miami-Overtown community genuinely rallied around the project in a way that he had not witnessed in filmmaking before. Many of the movie’s stars were teens from the community that had auditioned.  He even employed about 20 youths for his production staff and gave them all producing credit for the film. Even some of Miami’s high profile celebrities like Dwayne Wade pitched in and donated over 500 sneakers towards the cast, production and crew.

A fan of blackploitation film era, Townsend admits that Playin’ for Love is more than just a love story but it’s also an ode to his favorite 70’s childhood film, Claudine, which starred Diahann Carroll and James Earl Jones.

“It’s a sweet movie and I’m really proud that it has some morals and values in it, which is something you don’t see in a whole lot of TV shows today,” said Townsend.  “I’m also really glad it’s on the UP channel, which is all about uplifting entertainment.”

Next up for Townsend is a remake of the Richard Pryor classic, Brewster’s Million.

Playin’ for Love airs tonight at 7 p.m. EST on UP!

Check out a preview below:

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