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How Kasi Lemmons' Return to the Holiday Musical 'Black Nativity' Saved Her Life

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood December 6, 2013 at 10:10PM

But it took Lemmons four years to "shake down" the play and come up with her own take, which is revived every Christmas in cities all around the country, and new music to go along with the original's holiday standards. Producer Celine Rattray first suggested the project to her. "Look no further," Lemmons told her. "Please let it me me."
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"Black Nativity"
"Black Nativity"
Kasi Lemmons
Kasi Lemmons

Women filmmakers of color don't get that many times at bat in our myopic movie world. Which makes the four-feature output of Kasi Lemmons since her breakout with 1997 "Eve's Bayou" even more remarkable. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Lemmons moved to Boston with her mother when her academic parents divorced. She studied drama and film at NYU, UCLA and the New School of Social Research, where she met her husband of 18 years in a dance class, fellow actor Vondie Curtis-Hall. Many of Lemmons' films have dealt with artists, teachers and musicians. "I am drawn to music," she says. "It was always important to me, like poetry and art are important to me."

Producer Celine Rattray first suggested the project to her. "Look no further," Lemmons told her. "Please let it be me." Lemmons has enjoyed a long relationship with Fox Searchlight, where she developed a mystery about a black woman who is left a piece of music by a famous conductor when he dies. It never came to fruition. But all she had to do was mention the idea of a film version of the classic Langston Hughes Christmas musical "Black Nativity" to African American Searchlight production executive Stephanie Zollshan and she had a development deal. 

It still took Lemmons four years to "shake down" the play and come up with her own take, which is revived every Christmas in cities all around the country, plus create new music produced by Raphael Saadiq to go along with the original's traditional holiday standards. 

Lemmons had seen the play every year as a kid with her mother. "I knew it from memory," she says, "it was an important part of an era of my life. I hadn't seen it recently. It was a shocker reading it. 'Oh, I guess it's about execution, to make it bigger and about something different than the Nativity story.'" 

 

The script

She wrote the film--inspired by Bob Fosse's hallucinogenic riffs in "All the Jazz" and the musical set against ancient ruins in "Jesus Christ Superstar"--as a tribute to revered literary figure Langston Hughes. Lemmons wanted to keep Hughes' "interesting relationship with the Church," she says. "I had a deep appreciation for what it meant historically and culturally to the African-American people and to America. I mirrored that on a personal level. I was interested in it from both an anthropologic and religious point of view. 'What is faith? How do have faith? How do you do it? Is it just a matter of opening your eyes and looking at a glass half full, you know? How do you have it in today's world, filled with so much pain? Is it  that there are miracles all around us and we need to know how to witness them?'"

This article is related to: Black Nativity, Kasi Lemmons, Interviews, Interviews , Interviews, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.