How Kasi Lemmons’ Return to the Holiday Musical ‘Black Nativity’ Saved Her Life

How Kasi Lemmons' Return to the Holiday Musical 'Black Nativity' Saved Her Life
How Kasi Lemmons' Return the Holiday Musical 'Black Nativity' Saved Her Life

Women filmmakers of color don’t get that many times at bat in our myopic movie world. Which makes the four-feature output of Kasi Lemmons since her breakout with 1997 “Eve’s Bayou” even more remarkable. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Lemmons moved to Boston with her mother when her academic parents divorced. She studied drama and film at NYU, UCLA and the New School of Social Research, where she met her husband of 18 years in a dance class, fellow actor Vondie Curtis-Hall. Many of Lemmons’ films have dealt with artists, teachers and musicians. “I am drawn to music,” she says. “It was always important to me, like poetry and art are important to me.”

Producer Celine Rattray first suggested the project to her. “Look no further,” Lemmons told her. “Please let it be me.” Lemmons has enjoyed a long relationship with Fox Searchlight, where she developed a mystery about a black woman who is left a piece of music by a famous conductor when he dies. It never came to fruition. But all she had to do was mention the idea of a film version of the classic Langston Hughes Christmas musical “Black Nativity” to African American Searchlight production executive Stephanie Zollshan and she had a development deal. 
It still took Lemmons four years to “shake down” the play and come up with her own take, which is revived every Christmas in cities all around the country, plus create new music produced by Raphael Saadiq to go along with the original’s traditional holiday standards. 
Lemmons had seen the play every year as a kid with her mother. “I knew it from memory,” she says, “it was an important part of an era of my life. I hadn’t seen it recently. It was a shocker reading it. ‘Oh, I guess it’s about execution, to make it bigger and about something different than the Nativity story.'” 
The script
She wrote the film–inspired by Bob Fosse’s hallucinogenic riffs in “All the Jazz” and the musical set against ancient ruins in “Jesus Christ Superstar”–as a tribute to revered literary figure Langston Hughes. Lemmons wanted to keep Hughes’ “interesting relationship with the Church,” she says. “I had a deep appreciation for what it meant historically and culturally to the African-American people and to America. I mirrored that on a personal level. I was interested in it from both an anthropologic and religious point of view. ‘What is faith? How do have faith? How do you do it? Is it just a matter of opening your eyes and looking at a glass half full, you know? How do you have it in today’s world, filled with so much pain? Is it  that there are miracles all around us and we need to know how to witness them?'”

That’s where Lemmons was heading as she “wanted to talk about issues that were real, and the kinds of challenges that we face, single motherhood and broken families, misunderstandings in families. I was so interested in these great tragedies in families where all of a sudden people don’t speak.”

Producer Bill Horberg (“The Kite Runner”) encouraged Lemmons to “go for the personal and specific, ‘don’t shy away from it, the very sad, scary, fully do it.’ I wanted to make ‘Black Nativity,’ and I felt, ‘if did it right, it would be very universal.'”

Her own family divorce came into the picture. “When my parents got divorced the family definitely split a bit into factions. My elder sister was empathizing with my dad, not understanding why my mother left him. My middle sister and I were bonding with our mother, who took the two of us to Boston, and our lives were transformed. It was a rift that never got fixed, especially between me and my father.”

Lemmons asked: “‘Is it a musical? is it a drama with music? How much music in there?’ A lot of personal stuff ended up going into it. The film became infused by my own personal experience as I was going through something huge as I was writing it, it was part of the process. I lost my sister. She got sick and died. It was a catastrophe in the middle of me writing the movie. I had a draft due to Searchlight and I was going through this major event. I told Celine and Bill, ‘that’s it, I guess this won’t be happening, because I’m going through something very huge.'”

Not only did Lemmons lose her sister but she walked out of the hospital with her youngest child. “I have two kids,” she says. “Now I had Skye, who was 11 years old at the time, now 13. Her sister Zoe was in college. This huge thing was happening. But ‘Black Nativity’ saved my life. If I had been writing anything else I wouldn’t have been able, but because I was looking at questions of faith and family, and opening my home to this child, I became the [mother character] Aretha, and the questions were questions. It’s the most personal movie I’ve ever done.” 

The writing turned out to be a healing process. “I don’t know if I will ever heal,” she says. “At first I didn’t know if I would be able to go on at all. I was able to continue working. I happened to be working on this piece of material. Working on emotions like this became therapeutic for me.”

The music 

Every production of “Black Nativity” uses different parts of the play and changes up the songs, Lemmons realized. She wanted to keep the traditional “Rise Up Shepherd,” “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and “Fix Me Jesus,” from the Broadway production. The rights clearances with the Hughes estate were a bit complicated, but Rattray got it done. “Yes, they let us run with it,” says Lemmons.

And Lemmons wrote the musical with Jennifer Hudson in mind. “She was going to do the heavy lifting vocally,” Lemmons says. “That was the role of that character, the one who had the searing voice that went through you.” Lemmons also wanted to write a musical with original songs and connect with a brilliant music producer. She turned to Raphael Saadiq, the songwriter/composer/producer who began his early success with his group “Tony, Toni, Tone,” and produced for The Roots, Mary J. Blige, John Legend and Joss Stone. 

“He comes from a musical family, he’s a visionary genius, he’s produced for everybody,” Lemmons says. “He’s trying to write something timely and timeless, and something nostalgic. He’s referring to some things that have gone before and some that are new and perfectly relevant. He knows soul and gospel soul.”

Lemmons had written songs into the script, as each character started speaking poetry. So she gave sample lyrics and verses to Saadiq. “We had a good time doing it,” she says. “I’m not a songwriter. I needed a real musician on board to take the spirit of it, go away with my lyrics, take it to the next step and put music to it. I’d written one song, a young people’s version of ‘Silent Night,’ the only song I’d written, we actually did a musical version when we met Saadiq–Taylor Gordon had hummed the arrangement into an iPad, and we made a video of the song sung by Grace Gibson, who plays Maria. Saadiq and his writing partner wrote beautiful songs: ‘Coldest Town,’ ‘Test of Faith, Love Me Still.’ ‘Hush Child’ is based loosely on ‘Silent Night.’ ‘Motherless Child’ is heavily based on ‘Motherless Child’ with a new arrangement and hip hip spoken word. The rest is traditional music.”

And Lemmons finally rounded up her dream cast, led by Hudson, with Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as her parents. Still, it took a long time to get a green light, to get the cast all available at same moment. “We had to push it back an additional four months for Forest,” she says, because “I’d written this imposing character. He has a charismatic public persona, he’s very powerful, people look up to him, and yet he wrestles with real issues, he’s a man. He’s revered in his community. That’s an interesting dilemma. Forest is an actors actor actor, and I knew he could sing, I wanted a singing reverend.”

The film was shot in Harlem for $17.5 million. Part of Lemmons’ ode to Hughes was to shoot in Hamilton Heights and Sugar Hill, where she lives at 130th & Madison; Hughes lived on 127th between Madison and Fifth. She picked the landmark St. Luke’s Episcopal Church because “it has a lot of wear on it. I always thought it was beautiful.” 

The finale at the Church –with a stage performance, choir, band, dancers and high family melodrama acted out in front of 250 extras as the congregation– was Lemmon’s biggest challenge, filming over two days. “She said, ‘Oh definitely, oh man, if this doesn’t work, we’re screwed.’ But it was fun, super stressful, with a lot of magic to it.”

In the editing room and through research testing, Lemmon shaped the movie between the drama and the music. “The movie was definitely a balancing act of what should stay and what should go,” she says. “We shot a lot more movie, and more musical numbers, and more dancing. As we took it out, and began showing it to test audiences, people got involved in the drama, that was they really wanted, and loved the music.” The lost numbers, including a big one with Whitaker, will appear on the DVD.

Finally Lemmons premiered the movie in Harlem, of course, at the Apollo Theater on 125th Street. 

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