In her new film Black Nativity, starring Academy Award winners Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson, Kasi Lemmons explores the concept of having faith and keeping it alive through the trials of everyday life.
Black Nativity is a contemporary adaptation of the 1961 Langston Hughes play of the same name, which tells the biblical story of the Nativity. The holiday musical follows Langston (Jacob Latimore), a 15-year-old boy from Baltimore raised by his single mother, and his journey to New York City to spend Christmas with his estranged relatives Reverend Cornwell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett). Unfamiliar with their religious way of life and unwilling to compromise, Jacob is desperate to get back to his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson). Through this experience, Jacob learns the importance of family and faith.
Lemmons’ memories of the original play and her love of Langston Hughes is what compelled her to adapt this story.
“I have these wonderful childhood memories with the acting and the music, the dance and so I was drawn to wanting to do a film version of Black Nativity,” Lemmons told the Daily Trojan. “It was for nostalgic reasons and because I’m a huge fan of Langston Hughes and I was really just drawn to it because Langston was drawn to it.”
The Black Nativity story was also important to Lemmons on a more personal level, as her sister died while she was writing the script.
“I wouldn’t have been able to go back to it, in fact I didn’t know I would be able to write this at all,” Lemmons said. “The fact that it was an inspiring story to tell, it was the story that my sister loved … so this story got me through a really hard time.”
Lemmons said she applied the same concept of holding true to faith that appears in Black Nativity to her own hardships.
“Because I was working on something that … had real questions of faith, … and lives are complicated and when tragedy happens,” Lemmons said. “It was a question that I felt very connected to.”
Some of her most noted films, such as 1997’s Eve’s Bayou, take on a much darker tone and subject matter than Black Nativity, a PG-rated film. With Black Nativity, Lemmons said she took on a challenge in writing a script that appealed to audiences of all ages.
“I make R-rated films, you know? So it was a different kind of process,” Lemmons said. “It was challenging and I looked forward to the challenge and I embrace the challenge, you know what I mean? I was going for it.”
Despite the differences in subject matter, Lemmon said she still feels both Black Nativity and Eve’s Bayou are similar in the perspectives they portray.
“Both of those films are told through childhood perspectives,” Lemmon said. “So they’re both kind of looking at the world through the eyes of a young person and that’s one thing and I think a few of my films deal with something beyond the concert world.”
Though Lemmons said writing from Langston’s perspective was the most difficult, it was also the part she enjoyed the most.
“The hardest thing was writing a 15-year-old boy that doesn’t swear, that was really challenging and making it sound realistic,” Lemmons said. “That was the challenge and it was something I looked forward to. It’s not necessarily a trend in my life, it’s something that I embraced fully for this project.“
The biblical element of the film was also something Lemmons was familiar with. Capturing the realism in that aspect of the film is something Lemmons believes is the key to the film’s success.
“I know [the biblical aspect] is in my DNA. I wanted to get the church aspects of it right because when I see movies that don’t get it right, it bothers me,” Lemmons said. “So I wanted it to be real, you know? This was really a reverend, this is really his church, I wasn’t making fun of [Black Nativity], I was embracing it, trying to give breath to it.”
While Lemmons kept a lot of the score from the original play, she also added a few original songs written by songwriter Raphael Saadiq that the director feels will add something extra to the story.
“I knew if I partnered with the right musicians and musical director for the film, we could really do something great,” Lemmons said. “What you are going to hear when you see this movie is some great music. Everything has been kind of merged: R&B, hip-hop to gospel. It was really fun to me.”
Lemmons said one original song in particular will be something for the audience to look forward to.
“[“Test of Faith”] is a beautiful song sung by one of the talented singers of our time and [Hudson] is just tremendously talented,” Lemmons said. “I find it very, very moving, and I think the audience will too. “
Black Nativity comes to theaters Nov. 27.
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