warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

Interview: Director/Writer Kasi Lemmons On 'The Black Nativity'

Janet Lee |
November 20, 2013 | 5:10 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Kasi Lemmons and a fan pose at the Bronzlens Film Festival (Twitter/@IndiTyton).
Kasi Lemmons and a fan pose at the Bronzlens Film Festival (Twitter/@IndiTyton).
There is a lot to be thankful for during this time of year and director Kasi Lemmons brings themes of family and forgiveness onto the big screen in her upcoming film “The Black Nativity,” out in theatres on Thanksgiving Day.

Adapted from Langston Hughes’s celebrated play, The Black Nativity, the film possesses a star-studded cast that stars Forest Whittaker, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, and Angela Bassett

The film follows Langston (Jacob Latimore), a Baltimore teen who unwillingly journeys to New York City to stay with his estranged grandparents (Whittaker and Basset) for the holiday. It turns out to be an inspirational and fulfilling experience for Langston, as he learns the value of family, healing, and faith. 

Intertwining Hughes’s celebrated and classic tale of the Black Nativity within the context of the story, the film evokes a contemporary and refreshing feel. 

Lemmons began her career as an actress having roles in “Silence of the Lamb,” “The Cosby Show,” and “Candyman.” She then began writing and directing, creating acclaimed films such as “Eve’s Bayou” and “Talk to Me.” In addition to being a filmmaker, she is an educator for Sundance Labs and NYU Tish School of the Arts. 

Lemmons joined Neon Tommy for a phone interview, discussing her new film and career.

Why did you want to make a film adaptation of Langston Hughes’ play, The Black Nativity? 

Well there are a couple of reasons. One of the reasons was as soon as the producer mentioned it to me I had a personal association with the theater troupe and the stage production in Boston with my mother. The other big reason is that I’m just a huge fan. He means a lot to me. So I’ve been wanting to do something related to Langston Hughes for a long time. This was a dual opportunity to have some part in this musical written by Langston Hughes and to bond audiences every year to the screen.

What was the creative process like adapting Langston Hughes’ work onto the big screen? 

Well I first did the adapting on my own. I put a lot of thought into it. It was sort of a lengthy process because I wasn’t exactly sure what kind of approach I would take at first. I wanted to do a kind of contemporary story. I decided fairly on that I wanted to do something different than just adapt the play The Black Nativity. I was going to really write another story that could continue it. And so that’s how I started writing this story about a family I wanted to write something very contemporary and very much dealing with right now and our time but that would also feel timeless. That took a couple of years for me to write as a draft.  

The film centers around the character of Langston, played by Jacob Latimore. How did you go about developing his character? 

Langston was a reflection of my son in many ways to the point that every time I’d write a draft Langston was approximately the same age as my son. So he kind of brewed through the process. When I first wrote it Langston was thirteen and then I changed him to fifteen. I wanted him to be somebody who is raised by a single mother, living in the urban intercity environment and isolated from his extended family. 

You have a notable cast with talent such as Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, and Mary J. Blige. What was it like working with them?

I had recording artists who were acting and actors who were singing. And I like doing that. In my third film, “Talk to Me” I was working with serious actors who were doing comedy. It’s a great challenge for me as a director. We had such a great time. They were so available to me and really trusted me. And so it was wonderful collaborating with them. 

Forest Whittaker – he sings! It’s very nice to see him in such a different element. What was your relationship with him like on set?  

I’ve known Forest. He’s been an acquaintance for a while. One of the reasons I wanted him in the movie because he could sing. I knew he could sing. And I’d done a little research in trying to find who could be great in playing that part. And I was aware that at one point Forest actually wanted to be a singer. It was wonderful. Early on, he discussed how he wanted to do it. He wanted to be able to record live so that there’s a sort of spontaneity to his performance and he wanted it to feel very real and you know the way that I explained it to him also is that he’s a singing reverend so its not like to has to be a singer. 

Jacob Latimore, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Forest Whittaker star in "The Black Nativity" (Fox Searchlight).
Jacob Latimore, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Forest Whittaker star in "The Black Nativity" (Fox Searchlight).
I thought the dream sequences in your film were beautiful. What was your artistic vision behind them?

I thought about it very carefully. I wanted to be able to have a sort of dream reality that somehow mirrored Langston’s experience of coming to New York. What was immediately on his mind and the world that he’s first navigated. I thought that it would be wonderful to marry that with the kind of Bethlehem in his head. It has a New Yorkness to it. We wanted to shoot it in New York. Shoot the sequences as if they were in New York but also kind of in a dream in Bethlehem. [My Director of Photography and I] decided that we were going to give it a completely different look with saturated colors and glossiness to create a dream experience. It was something that was conceived and was written in the original scripts but we developed and got much more refined along the journey all the way through editing. 

This film along with your past films like “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Caveman’s Valentine” particularly cover themes of family and individual struggle. Why was implementing these themes important to you? Were there any personal experiences that had to do with it?

All my stuff is personal and everything I’ve ever written is personal but they’re not autobiographical. Mostly, I like writing about characters that exist in a kind of gray area and dynamic relationships. Family is such a good inspiration. If you like writing about dynamic situation, families work really well. 

You first started out acting and then began writing and directing your own projects.  What made you switch roles and what was the transition like? 

It was kind of not something that I could’ve absolutely foretold even though I participated in it. That time came on me when I had a lot of time in my hands and I decided to go to film school and study cinematography…I thought I might want to shoot documentaries. I made a short film that was pretty good and had a festival life and everything and I was very proud of it. I had an interview with Bill Cosby for The Cosby Show and he asked me to write a screenplay based on writing samples. It was kind of an audition piece. That was my first professional writing job and then eventually I started to get comfortable with it, I spoke to a friend of mine. I had characters in my head that I wanted to tell and so Eve’s Bayou is the first piece I wrote by myself and then I very very proud of that. But I didn’t know that I had to direct it right away. I was looking for a director. I was just starting to embark on a career as a screenwriter. It was the difficulty in finding someone to direct Eve’s Bayou that caused me to maybe I should take it on myself. But it came on gradually. Even after “Eve’s Bayou” I wasn’t convinced that I was going to do it again right away. And then something came up. I got another call for a movie for “Caveman’s Valentine.” After “Caveman’s Valentine,” I knew I was a director. I liked it too much and I knew I wanted to do it again. And I wanted keep trying to get better at it. It’s something that is so endlessly challenging that just trying to be good at it can take up your whole lifetime. 

I’m sure having an acting background definitely helped you with directing. 

I used what I liked in terms of directing techniques that I thought worked on me or in an approach that I respond to. And now that I’m a professor and I teach I do believe that it’s very very helpful. It definitely helps you get more in tune of what actors have in their work in terms of what they appreciate and what they don’t appreciate.  

Films send powerful messages on who is important and whose stories are valuable. The under-representation of minorities onscreen has always been problematic. What do you hope your efforts in film will do for audiences and the industry?

It’s not just my work but the work of other artists—my peers…artists around me and behind me. Hopefully we’ll be opening doors for filmmakers but also create a wealth of goals that have necessary depth. And it’s become and our job to really try and open that up. It’s about having characters that people know in a real way…in a real 3 dimensional way. And growing up I was torn at not seeing 3 dimensional African American characters that often. And even in my early acting career I was always the black girl best friend, black girl next door. It wasn’t all really true work of fleshing out myself. So I try to write about characters that are intricate people.  

You once said “I don’t wake up every day saying I’m a black woman because it’s too given, but I wake up everyday feeling like an artist and I feel I’m an artist.” This is a very empowering statement. Can you talk more about this? 

I don’t over think the obvious but at the same time I learned about myself at a very early age that I was an artist and that’s the way I looked at the world. And that it was a little different perhaps than the way other people looked at the world. And I was troubled by it at first because I didn’t know what it was. Once I figured it out that became a very big part of me. The driving part of me is that I’m an artist.  

You’re also an educator for Sundance Labs and NYU Tish School of Arts. What advice do you give to future filmmakers? 

It’s perseverance. The last man standing wins. You have to be able to stand and roll with the punches. The best way to approach filmmaking is to love it. If you have many many choices that you’d be happy with, filmmaking might not be what you want. Filmmaking is really difficult. You really have to enjoy the craft. Art requires great love and great passion. The happiest artists are those that can approach work with passion. That’s how you have a life that you’re satisfied by. I always tell my students that if you don’t have the passion and if there are other things available that would make you happy then you should do that. It really is a burning passion for the arts that leads to a successful and productive career. 

Watch the film's trailer below.

Reach Staff reporter Janet Lee here. Follow her on Twitter



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.