By Masha Dowell | Shadow and Act November 18, 2013 at 2:23PM
Kasi Lemmons' version of “Black Nativity” is infused with amazing performances, and subtle dramatization.
Coupled with the musical soundtrack; the film is a cinematic delight. It’s a real holiday joy.
Last month, Fox Searchlight held a press day for the film at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, which I attended, and where, as part of a round-table chat with other press, I was able pose a few questions to the film’s director and composer about their contributions to the film.
Kasi on how the script came about:
KASI LEMMONS: I had a meeting with producer and she asked me if I would be interested in doing the film version of “Black Nativity”? I grew up in Boston which was a major venue for the play; so I’d seen the play many times. So I was like yes; I have an interest. So I signed on as writer and director. That’s how I got involved. And then as I put it together; I realized how music was so important to the film. I was like who is going to do this music? I woke up in bed one day and I was like Raphael Saadiq is going to compose this film. So then I kind of stalked him.
Raphael on his involvement in the film:
RAPHAEL SAADIQ: I’ve always watched films and paid attention to film scoring. I’m a fan of Kasi; I also knew that she liked quality work. For my first film composing, I knew that it would be a challenge because all of the actors would have to sing; and I simple said yes to the challenge.
With the exception of Jennifer and Tyrese, I did not know initially if everyone else could sing. But I soon learned that Jacob Latimore could sing; and then Forest came in and knocked me out. I learned that Forest actually had some classical training.
Kasi talks about the casting process:
KASI LEMMONS When I met with Angela about the role; I was like this project is perfect for you! And then I was like you are going to have to sing. And she was game to try it. She was very brave. I told her you just have to be a woman singing. You don’t have to be a singer; it’s all emotion. It’s all acting [...] They are all first choices. However, with the role of Reverend Cobbs there are a handful of movie stars that I adore; that are dear friends of mine who could also sing. So I knew that it was going to be one of a few people. But Forest was my ideal; at first I didn’t know if I’d be able to get him because he was doing a movie in South Africa; but eventually we ended up waiting for him.
Kasi on her challenges in Hollywood as a female director:
KL: The challenges in some way are my material. Look, I’ve been asked this question before; and I’ve got to say that I don’t think about it as the truth. This is what I want to do. This is how I express. This is an evolution of my career. I don’t wake up every day and say I am a black woman what do I do? You know it’s only when I’m in a meeting with a bunch of directors or I look at statistics that I’m like I got to hold it down from where I am. I don’t dwell on it. The biggest challenges are always getting into the rooms that you need to get into and having people open to the types of stories that I want to tell. And I feel that just being a female director and doing that is a big deal in this country. On my third movie I worked with a French DP. I asked him has he ever worked with a woman director before? He said in France a third of directors are women; so you can’t avoid them. So I realized that the US is behind.
On transferring an off- Broadway play to a film:
KASI LEMMONS: As a child I remember the pageantry and everything; but then I read the play and I was like oh… it was great; but I had to decide what the film was really going to be about; and what stories I want to tell. So when I started telling that story in 2007; the financial crisis was going on. And I wanted to talk about that in some way. But I also wanted the play to be about Langston Hughes or reflecting upon him. So I named the teen after Langston (played by Jacob Lattimore). I wanted to connect Langton to the play beyond the play.
How TD Jakes got involved in the project:
KL: Early on the studio made the connection that TD Jakes would be interested in this type of material. The studio knew that he would be a powerful supporter.
Raphael on where he drew inspiration for such powerful songs:
RAPHAEL SAADIQ: Kasi’s film, “Eve’s Bayou”, kind of frighten me a bit (laughter); I knew I had to be up to par with that film. For this film I brought forth the tradition of gospel. A lot of the music had to be set before the start. I had to write the songs before I had to mix both. I wrote for the cast; I had to create songs for them.
On whether they made the film that they wanted to make from the start:
RAPHAEL SAADIQ: We had a lot that did not make it. Forest does a lot of songs that will be on the DVD and on the soundtrack.
KASI LEMMONS: It’s a process. The cut that we put out to the audiences is a refined cut. For a paying audience. It’s different than what’s in a director’s mind (my mind).
On what audiences should expect to take from the film experience as opposed to the play?
KASI LEMMONS: It’s a reflection of our time. The everyday miracle of forgiveness,. You know I did not want something that is like the hand of God is reaching down to you. Because I believe that happens that happens every day in tiny ways. Opening yoru heart can open the universe to a lot of possibilities
Black Nativity opens on November 27, 2013.
Interviews with key cast members, as well as a review of the film, are forthcoming.