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Black Nativity Director Kasi Lemmons Talks About Langston Hughes, Making a Musical

Interviews
by Melissa Silverstein
November 27, 2013 12:30 PM
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Kasi Lemmons adapts Langston Hughes' musical retelling of the Nativity story in her new film Black Nativity, which features a superstar cast of Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, and newcomer Jacob Latimore as a teenager searching for the spirit of the holidays after he and his mother (Hudson) are evicted from their apartment. Her previous films include Eve's Bayou, The Caveman's Valentine, and Talk to Me

Lemmons spoke with Women and Hollywood about her attachment to Langston Hughes' work, the new songs she helped co-write for the film, and this year's bumper crop of films about the black experience. 

Tell me a little bit about why you wanted to tell this particular story.

One of the main draws was that I remembered the show. I saw it in Boston when I was about eight. I had these childhood memories of it. The other major reason was my really strong connection with Langston Hughes as an artist and historical figure -- he's almost a romantic historical figure to me. He's very, very important to me. I really wanted to bring Langston to a modern audience, a film audience. 

Did you take the show and make it into a movie, or did you really rewrite the whole thing?

I rewrote the whole thing. I made it about these people putting on a production of [Hughes' musical] Black Nativity. I wrote a story in which Black Nativity is an element and then I tried to infuse it into the story, to use it in the story. The part that's really Black Nativity is when they go to church. 

How long did it take you to write the script?

A long time. It took me a while to come up with that structure. I think I had the basic form of it, a first draft, in 2009, and I wrote the last draft fairly recently. I rewrote it over a period of two or three years, with the major work being done in 2010 and 2011.

And you always knew this was something that you were going to direct?

They approached me to write and direct it. Celine Rattray [the film's producer] and I were meeting about something else. She just happened to bring up this project and asked, "Would you ever be interested in doing a musical film version of Black Nativity?" I just jumped out of my seat because I had this connection to this material. She had seen a wonderful production of it in Harlem.

Was it important for you to shoot in Harlem?

Yes, because Harlem is important to Langston, and it just felt right that if we're going to do a modern version of Black Nativity, then Harlem would be a great place to set it.

The lyrics that you have in these wonderful songs are by Langston Hughes, but there is new music written by a couple of composers?

The [new] songs are written primarily by Raphael Saadiq, Taura Stinson, and me. [The musical score is composed by Laura Karpman.] I had written lyrics into the script for the [new] songs, a couple of which survived, and some of which were used as a jumping-off point for much better lyrics that they then wrote.  There are a couple of completely original songs and then some songs that are hybrids, like "Silent Night," "Hush Child," and "Motherless Child."

I was looking at the website for the film today, and three words appeared on the bottom of it: faith, family, and forgiveness. Does that describe the film for you?

It's very hard to put a film into [these kinds of categories.] I probably wouldn't describe it that same way, but it does fit, for sure. It is about faith, family, and forgiveness.

So if you had to give a logline for the film, what would you say?

I'd say it's a modern fable for our times, and yet it has a fantastical element to it with the nativity story. The musical experience is unlike anything you've seen.

What was the biggest challenge for you in the shoot?

Wow. I mean, there were so many. The biggest challenge was probably the music. It seems kind of obvious, but the musical numbers. On the other hand, because we'd rehearsed them almost like a theatrical production in rehearsal spaces and spent a lot of time doing it, sometimes those were the smoothest things. 

There seems to be an increasing number of movies being made by black directors this year. Do you think this a trend or an anomaly?

I think a coincidence makes a trend. I certainly don't think it was planned this way, and I can prove that by the fact that it takes so many years to make movies. I don't know how long Lee Daniels worked on The Butler, but for many of us, it's over two, three, four, five years. I think it just happens to be a year when all these movies got released. 

But, on the other hand, I do think that there's a reason why in the past, say, five years, these films have been percolating. I certainly hope it's a trend, because I've been looking forward to it for a long time, and specifically a year like this, when there's a variety of different kinds of films, it is great.

But at the same time statistics show that there are only two black female directors on the top 500 grossing films for the past five years. That's brutally awful.

It is unbelievable. 

Why is it so much more difficult for women of color specifically, and women in general, to get movies made? Your movie is going to open in 2000 theatres. Not a single woman-directed film in 2013 opened in more than 2000 screens until October, when Kimberly Peirce's Carrie opened.

Wow.

As a person who has made several movies now and has a body of work, what does this mean to you, that it's still so difficult?

I don't really understand it. I think it's different in other countries. I know it's different in France -- there are plenty of female directors there. In India too.

Do you feel like something is happening? That different conversations are happening even though the statistics aren't changing yet?

Yeah, and it will change. For sure it will change. You've really got to thank God for Kathryn Bigelow. We have these huge movies directed by women like Catherine Hardwick (Twilight) and Kathryn Bigelow with The Hurt Locker. Thank God for them. 

I don't want to sound naive, but I don't know that "highest grossing" is the measure of success. Of course, it's a measure of success, but I don't know that I would strictly measure success that way. How many really good films are made by women? But I do think it's important that we have female directors making these kinds of films that are for wide audiences. There have also been a lot of good films -- I mean, The Hurt Locker was a wonderful movie. But still, percentage-wise, it's kind of astonishing. I'm not quite sure what the reason is. I just think we're kind of low on the list.

Or not even on the list.

Or not even on it. And we need to talk our way on it. What do you think the reason is?

Well, in other countries there's funding available to films. When you have state funds, there are diversity issues in terms of funding, and they fund women. The people in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand are fantastic. They're really attuned to the fact that they want other kinds of voices. Their movies are not dominated by commercial expectations: they're actually making art instead of business, and people in theoe countries are interested in those kinds of films.

Right. Exactly. That's what I'm saying. It's interesting that we judge everything by how much it makes. In Hollywood, people aren't that interested in these voices. They're not that interested in new: they're interested in what's been proven, in trying to recreate the last movie that did great and reusing that formula.


Black Nativity is now in theatres.

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