by Brad Liberti
Less than two weeks after Malcolm D. Lee’s The Best Man Holiday surprised Hollywood with a $30 million-dollar-opening weekend and an A+ cinemascore, another holiday film with a predominantly African-American cast arrives in theaters hoping to spread a bit of seasonal cheer and perhaps reap the same box office returns. Fortunately, similar to Best Man, this one is a crowd-pleasing treat. However, that’s about all the two dramatically different films have in common.
Writer/Director Kasi Lemmon’s Black Nativity isn’t so much a literal translation of Langston Hughes’ iconic 1961 work as it is a modern reimagining of the poet’s Gospel-infused passion play, one featuring an all-star cast eager to collaborate with the visionary behind Eve’s Bayou and Talk To Me.
(Kasi) is just an amazing filmmaker. She’s so talented and so dedicated you can’t help but learn (when you work) with her," says Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, offering up praise for his gifted director and explaining why he didn’t hesitate when Lemmons asked him to lead fellow Academy Award recipient Jennifer Hudson, nominee Angela Bassett, and Grammy-winning superstars Tyrese Gibson and Mary J. Blige in bringing Black Nativity to the screen.
For Whitaker, star of Lee Daniels' The Butler, the film’s subject matter also proved irresistible: “Kasi was trying to tell a story about a family - from us, the grandparents, to our daughter and our grandchild - everybody that makes up a family. That is what this movie is about, forgiving, mending the past, mending relationships, loving.”
And the holiday season was a subject that was particularly appealing to its buzzy cast. “Christmas is the birth of Jesus," says Mary J. Blige with characteristic candor, “and that means everything to me. It’s about love; it’s about food; it’s about presents. It’s the best thing! You wait for that all year.”
Fellow chart-topper Jennifer Hudson echoes the sentiment: “I just love the holidays – they’re about family, and music, and church - these are all the elements of me.”
Whitaker plays a Harlem preacher and family man whose world changes when his estranged daughter (Hudson) sends his grandson (Jacob Latimore) home for the holidays, and singing on screen with the likes of Hudson proved to be daunting task. “I was scared,” the actor admits. At least he took comfort in the fact that his movie wife, Angela Bassett, despite receiving an Oscar nomination for playing one of the most beloved singers of all time in 1993’s What’s Love Got To Do With It, was equally terrified:
I’d lied (when) Kasi asked me if I could sing, think(ing) I won’t let a little thing like that keep me from doing the part. So when she set me up with Rafael, I was extremely nervous to say the least.”
The Rafael that Ms. Bassett refers to is none other than Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/producer, Rafael Saadiq, the man whom Lemmons tapped to compose Black Nativity’s score as well as create some rousing new songs for it, despite the fact that the hitmaker had never done anything like this before.
“I’ve worked with Spike Lee. I’ve worked with John Singleton. All these people on all these different films, but this was like the whole movie! I was nervous, though it’s funny, the scariest thing about the process (proved to be) having to shut my mouth most of the time and not say anything.”
For the film’s youngest star, 17-year-old Jacob Latimore, silently observing the talent all around him was easy. It was getting in touch with his character’s simmering rage that was much more challenging: “I’m a very sensible person, and it’s very rare that I get angry, so I really had to dig deep (to find my character) because Kasi wanted me to stay strong and firm. That’s what the role called for.”
Strong and firm at first, but like all holiday-facilitated miracles, Latimore’s troubled teen eventually learns how to open up and allow love and all its blessings into his life; a lesson that resonates deeply in today’s increasingly disconnected world. Gibson, the charismatic star of the Fast and The Furious flicks, sums it up best: “When you can see yourself in the movie, a different kind of realization sets in, and you want to be better. This film is an opportunity to mentor through cinema.”
And certainly, to spread even more holiday cheer.