Langston Hughes’ play is brought to the big screen

“I wanted to pay homage to Langston Hughes,” says ‘Black Nativity’ director Kasi Lemmons.

Jacob Latimore, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Forest Whitaker in BLACK NATIVITY.

Jacob Latimore, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Forest Whitaker

A reverent, orthodox movie aimed at churchgoers across the spectrum, “Black Nativity” is a careful, respectful retelling of a story familiar to many. Originally written by Langston Hughes, the show was first performed Off-Broadway in December 1961, and was one of the first plays written by an African-American to be staged there.

For director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”), a Langston Hughes fan, the play was the perfect project to introduce the author’s work to a new generation.

“I am very interested in stories about Langston. He struggled with faith and had a relationship with the church that was complicated and I wanted to pay homage to him,” says the director who lives in Harlem, right around the corner from where the famous Black American poet, playwright lived in the early 1920’s.

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Tyrese Gibson as Tyson and Jacob Latimore as Langston

As the film begins, we meet the main character Langston (Jacob Latimore), a 15 year old boy who lives with his poverty-stricken mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson). As Christmas approaches, Naima can’t pay the mortgage. Threatened with foreclosure, she sends Langston to New York to spend time with his estranged grandparents Aretha (Angela Bassett) and Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker), prominent members of the black community. But Langston lands in trouble even before they have a chance to pick him up at the bus station. Struggling with New York City crime and his own inability to help his mother through a difficult time, he encounters a mysterious man (Tyrese Gibson) who offers him a path to violence to solve his problems. When he witnesses the Black Nativity production his grandfather forces him to attend, it unexpectedly affects him and penetrates his dreams.

Prettily filmed, with soaring music, Lemmons delivers a song-driven  updated twist to Hughes’ work and vividly translates the play for the screen without losing its basic simplicity, warmth, and vigor. It helps that she is aided by a cast that handles the music just as well as the drama.

Light, frothy, charming and contemporary, there’s music, dance, color and spectacle, for musician Raphael Saadiq mixes R&B and hip-hop with traditional folk and gospel influences. He tailors the music to each actor and showcases the talents of its cast members that include singer Mary J Blige and rapper Nas.

Mary J. Blige as Lucy in BLACK NATIVITY

Mary J. Blige stars in “Black Nativity”

Yet for all of the film’s pageantry, music, dance and visual electricity, Lemmons says in the end it all came down to wanting to depict a real family facing real questions of faith and connection.

“Even though we have music and dancing I wanted the film to always be rooted in everyday life,” she says. “This family is going through things every family goes through. They are dealing with issues that are very simple to even if they’re quite difficult to realize. Practicing love is not always easy. Melting the hardness in your heart is not always easy. But the ideas are simple.”

Jennifer Hudson

Jennifer Hudson as Naima (photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

“Black Nativity” has a quiet sincerity to it that’s sometimes quite moving and is a lovely film that takes an honest and heartfelt approach to a very familiar story.

“His play is revealed in this film and you don’t have to go to a Broadway show to see a Langston Hughes film. You can go and see this film,” says Hudson.

Samantha Ofole-Prince serves as the Entertainment Editor for Caribpress News-Magazine and can be reached on samantha.ofole@caribpress.com

 

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