Legendary director, producer, comedian, and actor Robert Townsend is warming our hearts with his latest film, a romantic drama called, Playin’ For Love. Townsend serves as the films director, writer and lead actor. He plays a high school basketball coach, named Coach Banks, who is known for his head strong ways and lengthy championship winning streak. When a rival teams star player is transferred to his team, “The General” is forced to change his ways. He falls for the player,s mother, played by Salli Richardson- Whitfield and learns what it means to truly value his career and a love life.
Mr. Robert Townsend sat down with Parlé to discuss Playin’ For Love, the 25th anniversary of The Five Heartbeats and his passion to make a difference.
Parlé Mag: I understand there’s an interesting story behind how your new movie, Playin’ For Love, came together. Please tell us about that.
Robert Townsend: The movie starts with the story behind it. I have been associated with the American Black Film Festival for 20 years. I was in Miami a few years back, and I was approached by the commissioner of Overtown, Michelle Spence- Jones, about the terrible things going on with the youth there. People were dying from drugs, gangs, and violence and she wanted me to bring in some new inspiration by teaching them about making movies. She mentioned that the kids only seemed to respond to actors and rappers, and she thought it would be a great idea for me to do a short film with them. I decided to do one better and create a whole movie. I would show them how to do everything and we can make something great. So that’s how Playin’ For Love got started. I had written the script with writers named Michelle Amor and Cheryl L. West, and the film was done with the community. I went over to Overtown and talked to the kids about making movies for eight weeks and then we started to make the film. The kids were on the crew and in the film. They got to work in the wardrobe department, hair and make-up, sound department and production. I called on some of my Hollywood friends such as Jenifer Lewis, Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs, and Salli Richardson-Whitfield; everyone agreed to be a part of this. It was a real labor of love to do something for the community. That started the whole journey. We were holding auditions for the basketball players and because everyone was donating their time and services to make the movie, Pat Riley, and the Miami Heat donated the American Airlines Arena, where the Heats play, for our basketball tryouts. We had 5,000 kids come out to the basketball tryouts. One of the producers of the film is NBA legend, Isiah Thomas. He took the kids through NBA style basketball training and drills to prepare them for the movie. It was an amazing experience. The movie is the movie, but the backdrop behind the film is the real story.
Parlé: Talk about the whole experience and working with those young adults?
Robert Townsend: I had 20 kids in my program from the inner city. Some of the them were in homeless shelters and others were in just really rough drive by neighborhoods that were getting hit hard, and this movie was the hope for that whole community. Overall, I had the best time with this film. Salli Richardson-Whitfield, I think this is some of her best work. She is just amazing. I think all the child actors were magical and professional with this being their first movie. This movie has an old- fashioned love story, but it has morals and values and dealing with teen pregnancy and education.
Parlé: You talk about values and morals in your current movie, but these two characteristics are found in all of your work. A lot of television shows today lack those two key components. There isn’t much on television that children and adults can learn from. As an actor, director, producer, and parent, where do you think television show creators have gone wrong concerning the substance on television today?
Robert Townsend: You are absolutely right. We are in a different time in history where we have a lot of positive and negative energy. A lot of the reality shows bring out the worst in everyone. The generation now is watching this stuff, and they think it’s cool. It’s funny you talk about this because I get tweets and things all the time about my shows and movies, like The Five Heartbeats. This year is the 25th anniversary of the movie. I’m working on a documentary right not about how I made the film because there are a bunch of celebrations coming up. The Writers Guild is doing one in February where Keenan, myself and the cast will be talking about how the film was written and created. Tom Joyner will be doing a special screening on his cruise in April. In the documentary that I have been working on, for about the last two years, I discuss the reason why I made The Five Heartbeats. It was because the images of Black men were so negative. To me, this generation is getting a lot of negative stuff, and they are going to act negatively in life because of what they see on television. I think it is important to give them positive images and hope, like in Playin’ For Love. I believe people can watch a movie or television show and come away with something that may change their life. The documentary about The Five Heartbeats depicts all the images of men of color and how we do different things and how we love and how we take are of family and also how we fight and makeup. Playin’ for Love has a bunch of hidden messages. I like to call it the Trojan Horse because it has much in it for people to gain.
Parlé: You’ve worked with the biggest names in comedy, directed Eddie Murphy in his prime with RAW, how does you feel when people say Kevin Hart is the funniest comedian of all time because he’s broken all these box office records with his comedy specials?
Robert Townsend: Here’s the thing, I think for this generation, Kevin Hart is a megastar. There is a new generation now. They have no idea how big Eddie Murphy was at that time. They have no idea the walls and boundaries he broke down. I just think that Eddie is a genius and before him, there was Richard Pryor, who was another genius. Kevin Hart is a funny, funny man. I’m a connoisseur of comedy, and I can say that Eddie has always lived in another realm like Richard Pryor did. I can’t compare; I just think they are funny. To me funny is funny. If you look at Eddie Murphy having directed Raw, you would be like “OMG.” I don’t compare comedians.
Parlé: What else can fans of The Five Heartbeats expect for the 25th anniversary?
Robert Townsend: The documentary is coming out and if they go to roberttownsend.com, there are some clips about it up now. People can go to my twitter, @Robert_Townsend and see more information.
Watch The Trailer For Playin’ For Keeps here:
Playin’ For Love also stars Esai Morales, Jenifer Lewis and Melyssa Ford. Playin’ For Love made it’s streaming premiere on UMC – Urban Movie Channel. The film will be available on DVD and digital video on February 9.