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Refashioning A Gospel Story In 'Black Nativity'


In 1961, at the height of the civil rights movement, Langston Hughes wrote the musical play "Black Nativity." It featured an entirely black cast, and it was the first play to incorporate a real gospel choir.


CHOIR: (Singing) I'm coming home for you, you think (unintelligible).

MARTIN: Every year, roughly a quarter million people see "Black Nativity" on stage. But this year, a new star-studded production is hitting the big screen, starring the likes of Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett. The filmmaker is Kasi Lemmons. When she was growing up, seeing "Black Nativity" was a family tradition during the holidays. The original play is an uplifting story of Jesus' birth. But "Black Nativity," the movie, as Kasi Lemmons created it, is framed with a modern tale of economic struggle. A young single mother and her teenaged son are getting kicked out of their house.


JACOB LATIMORE: (as Langston) We're being evicted? I thought you were going to work something out with the bank. I thought we could win it back.

JENNIFER HUDSON: (as Naima) I've been trying. It's hard getting that much together.

LATIMORE: (as Langston) So, we've got to move?

HUDSON: (as Naima) Langston.

LATIMORE: (as Langston) Where are we going to live, ma? Why didn't tell me?

MARTIN: That's Jennifer Hudson playing the role of Naima. She's out of options, so she sends her son, played by Jacob Latimore, to live with her estranged parents until she can figure out what to do next. Kasi Lemmons says she wanted to write a story that today's families could relate to, so she looked inside her own family life at the time.

KASI LEMMONS: This was 2008 - we're in the height of the financial crisis. And my sister and her daughter moved in with my mom - her house was foreclosed on.

MARTIN: She was having financial problems?

LEMMONS: She was having financial problems - everybody was. It was the country. So, I wanted to root it in right then. It's a family in conflict, a family in crisis, but at the same time I wanted you to leave "Black Nativity" with the feelings that I left the theater with when I saw the stage production.


HUDSON: (as Naima) (Singing) This love in my heart is all I have left. That's not enough but it's my best...

MARTIN: And, obviously, the nativity that you grew up is a musical kind of experience. You could have kept the music circumscribed to the actual pageant, but you didn't. You made a full-on musical. How is that for you as a director, this new kind of adventure?

LEMMONS: Well, it's interesting. I mean, it was the way that the story felt like it wanted to tell itself. I thought it would be cool to do some original songs in different kind of genres of music and then work our way into kind of the nativity music. It was so much fun. I mean, it was really fun. It was a little bit intimidating.

MARTIN: There are some people involved in this project.

LEMMONS: The way I got through that vat of nerves was to really partner up with Raphael Saadiq, and the first song that he wrote is "Test of Faith," where Naima's sending her son away and she sings this beautiful song. It was really amazing.


HUDSON: (as Naima) (Singing) You got my attitude, and you got your daddy's blues. Want you to see love can be faithful and true. I haven't been a saint, so I'm gonna be all be, and hope someday sooner than we think, in the meantime, I've been...

MARTIN: I mean, as we mentioned, big names - not only Jennifer Hudson - Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker. I mean, what was it like on that set?

LEMMONS: It was incredible. I mean, it really, really was. You know, some of them are recording artists, are a little more green to film acting. Then I have Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett, who are, like, you know, the king and queen of, you know, stage and screen. And yet there, you know, there was Jacob, who this was only his second movie. And it was really a wonderful opportunity and a wonderful gift to kind of be there to help break him out, you know.

MARTIN: And the music in this film is really lovely, incredibly powerful at some points. I understand you actually helped write some of the songs. Is that correct?

LEMMONS: Yeah. I mean, I had written all the lyrics - my version of the lyrics - into the script, and then Raphael and his songwriter Taura came onboard and they transformed many of the songs. But there was one song that I'd already recorded in order to kind of convince the studio to give me a green light. So, as part of my presentation to the studio, I had shot a music video of "Hush Child," the Silent Night song.


HUDSON: (as Naima) (Singing) This ain't easy. I got a mouth to feed but I can't make these ends meet. Got (unintelligible) my Lord don't hear my prayers, I've never been (unintelligible). The silence is too loud for me. Life just ain't fair. Sleep in heavenly peace. Sleep in heavenly peace.

MARTIN: I hope you don't mind me asking - you've said before that writing this film helped you deal with the loss of your sister. She died of breast cancer. And since then, you've taken in her teenage daughter as part of your family. The film has similar themes of loss and reimagining family, reinterpreting family in new times. Can you talk a little bit about how making this movie helped you specifically during that time?

LEMMONS: Well, I was between drafts and I was at a point where I really needed to deliver the draft that was going to get the movie green-lighted. And then my sister got very sick. So, I took a break from it. And then after she passed away, I honestly - I didn't know if I was going to be able to come back to writing at all. I mean, I couldn't imagine the next step except that I had these kids and a grieving child to take care of. But this really was a great rock to hold onto for me. You know, it was very fun to write and kind of, you know, uplifting.

MARTIN: For people who know "Black Nativity" intimately, it's been perhaps part of their family tradition, what do you want them to walk away from this movie with?

LEMMONS: Well, it's a family drama and they're dealing with the sorts of problems that are prevalent, not just in African-American families but, you know, that are kind of very familiar and might have a solution that feels so unattainable and yet in some ways it's simple, calls on our deepest generosity of the soul, you know. Family estrangement is a subject that has always interested me. You know, how did they get that way and, you know, what do you do about it?


LATIMORE: (as Langston) (Singing) I don't know why I'm here or where I am going anymore. Mama tried to save me from the street war but...

MARTIN: Director Kasi Lemmons. Her newest film is called "Black Nativity." Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

LEMMONS: Thank you for having me.


LATIMORE: (as Langston) (Singing) If I'm gonna get the strength again, I gotta move slow. Steady, stay ready, 'cause it's worth waiting for. Daddy (unintelligible) when I wasn't (unintelligible). It wasn't me that a (unintelligible)...

MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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