Langston Hughes would have approved.
With the movie “Black Nativity,” director Kasi Lemmons takes Hughes’ gospel-infused play from 1961 and replaces its “Go Tell It on the Mountain” roots with a rap and R&B urban sensibility. It is modern, it is strong and it works. The film opens locally Wednesday.
“Making the movie really had to do with my interest in the source material,” said Lemmons, explaining how the “Eve’s Bayou” director came to make a Christmas movie. “I had grown up with ‘Black Nativity,’ it was part of my childhood, and it spoke to me, even without me really remembering it.
“It was the memory of it, how it made you feel – it was so vibrant and emotional for me.”
Much has happened in the 50 years since Hughes filled a traditional-style Christmas pageant with black performers and a chorus of gospel singers as the heavenly host. Even stage productions over the years have updated its songs and settings.
Lemmons takes it further, putting the play within the larger framework of a troubled family shattered by bad choices and a refusal to forgive.
“I wanted to make something that was contemporary and at the same time, timeless,” Lemmons said. “Kind of like a time capsule, where what you show is very specific, but it’s also universal.”
And, as an artist inspired by the work of Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance writers since she was a child (she named her daughter after Zora Neale Hurston), she saw this as a way to share her enthusiasm for them.
“I wanted to make a movie with the spirit not just of ‘Black Nativity,’ I wanted a modern Langston Hughes homage,” she said.
Mentions of Hughes and nods to his poetry show up throughout the film, starting with the name of its young hero, Langston Cobb, played with low-key intensity by Jacob Latimore. When the teen arrives in New York City to stay with his estranged grandparents, a minister and his wife, one of the first things he learns from his grandfather as they drive down 125th Street is, “Langston Hughes said he would rather be a lamp post in Harlem than mayor of Georgia.”
The grandfather is played by Forest Whitaker. Angela Bassett plays his wife, and Jennifer Hudson is their daughter. Lemmons’ last film, “Talk to Me,” in 2007, starred Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor. All five have either been nominated for or won Academy Awards, except for Ejiofer, who is almost certain to get nominated this year for his starring role in “12 Years a Slave.” Whitaker could be there, too, for his lead role in “The Butler.”
So, does Lemmons now insist on Oscar-worthy actors for her films? She laughed at the suggestion and praises her luck.
“When you’re putting together your wish list for a cast, you reach pretty high,” she said, “and I happened to get them all!”
And should Whitaker and Ejiofer wind up as Oscar contenders this year, she will be rooting for both.
“I am so ready for that!” she said. “I am a huge fan of Chiwotel, and he so deserves this, and Forest is ... I can’t describe the way I feel about him, he’s such an actor’s actor’s actor, and a real star.”
Another role in her film was easier to fill, that of the pawnbroker who catches young Langston trying to do the wrong thing and sets him right. He is played by Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall.
“Our people had a lot of back and forth to get him,” she joked. “Not really. It’s more like, ‘Who am I going to be?’ He’s just wonderful, he comes alive on screen, and it’s such a good scene. People always respond to him on screen.”
Perhaps the most difficult part to cast was the teenager, Langston. She needed a young actor who could act and sing on the level of Hudson, who plays his mother, and feel comfortable in the film’s musical context. Latimore worked out better than she could have hoped, she said.
“He has extreme comfort in his own skin. I was a child actor, but I did not have the facility of some of these kids out there now,” she said. “I’m really interested, as a director, in showing this age and exploring it. They are so easily misunderstood, so maybe I helped bring something out. But it was mostly him.”
And then there was finding a way to get them all to their personal Bethlehem.
As the film approaches its climax, an exhausted Langston dreams of a New York City nativity while his grandfather preaches of peace, love and forgiveness.
The vision for the scene came to her early on in writing the film.
“I wanted New York City to be an important part of the piece, and so it was important that Bethlehem be New York, too,” Lemmons said. “I mean, what fun! We’ll make the road to Bethlehem start in Times Square.”