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

by Anne Thompson
December 6, 2013 10:10 PM
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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?'"


  • lilkunta | December 7, 2013 4:41 PMReply

    wait, Kasi said she had been working on this movie for 4yrs, then says
    __Not only did Lemmons lose her sister but she walked out of the hospital with her youngest child. "I have two kids," she says. "Now I had Skye, who was 11 years old at the time, now 13. Her sister Zoe was in college. This huge thing was happening. But 'Black Nativity' saved my life..." __

    so she had Skye 4yrs ago or not ?
    This is confusing.

  • lilkunta | December 7, 2013 4:29 PMReply

    i didnt know she was married to Vondie C-H.
    It is a sad state that a 4 pic deal is a success 4 an Afr Am lady director in 2013.

    PS where is Julie Dash ?

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