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Amazing Grace: Berklee student makes film debut in ‘Black Nativity’

Colette Greenstein
Colette Greenstein
Amazing Grace: Berklee student makes film debut in ‘Black Nativity’
(Photo: Sarah Kjelleren photo)

Berklee College of Music student Grace Gibson is making her movie debut in the now playing “Black Nativity.” The movie is based on Langston Hughes’ classical gospel play and Gibson plays two roles and sings in the film.

Berklee College of Music student, Grace Gibson, makes her big screen debut in the Fox Searchlight Pictures film “Black Nativity.” She plays two roles in the contemporary musical drama, which is based on Langston Hughes’ classic gospel play. Filmed in Harlem, the recently released film follows Langston, a street-wise teen from Baltimore raised by single mom Naima, as he travels to New York City to spend the Christmas holiday with his estranged grandparents the Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs.

Unwilling to live by the imposing Reverend Cobbs’ rules, a frustrated Langston is determined to return home to Naima, all the while embarking on a surprising and inspirational journey, where he discovers the true meaning of faith, healing and family.

The film stars Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett in the respective roles of Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs; the multi-talented singer/actress Jennifer Hudson as Naima, and Jacob Latimore as Langston. Rounding out the all-star cast are Vondie Curtis Hall, Mary J. Blige, Tyrese Gibson, Nasir Jones and Grace Gibson.

Gibson plays Maria — a pregnant, homeless teen from Spanish Harlem — and the Virgin Mary. Handpicked by director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Talk To Me”), Gibson also showcases her vocal abilities, including a duet of “Silent Night” with Hudson, which she co-produced along with friend and Berklee alumna Taylor Gordon.

Born in Los Angeles and raised between New York City and London, Gibson was introduced to the arts at an early age by her parents, British director Brian Gibson (“What’s Love Got To Do With It,” “The Juror”) and her mother, veteran actress Lynn Whitfield (“Eve’s Bayou,” “The Josephine Baker Story”).

Growing up, her parents exposed her to various genres of music and film, which ultimately led her toward the arts. At the age of 12, she began studying dance at some of the finest dance schools around the world including the Harlem School of the Arts, The Alvin Ailey School and the National Conservatory of France. With the support of her dance teachers, Gibson gained enough confidence to pursue her love for music, which led her to musical theater, and ignited her passion for dance, theater and music.

While studying at Columbia University’s Barnard College, Gibson earned a scholarship to Berklee after attending the college’s five-week summer program. Currently enrolled at the school, Gibson is majoring in professional music with a philosophy minor and plans to add a composition or film scoring focus.

In between school and promoting the film Gibson spoke to the Banner from New York about her experience working on “Black Nativity.”

When did you know that you wanted to be an actor and how did your parents feel about it?

It wasn’t so much being an actor. I looked at other artistic outlets and I learned so much from the discipline of dance. I love film and filmmaking. That’s how my parents met, through a film. I analyzed film in high school and studied filmmaking at Columbia.

Did they give you any advice about getting into the “family business”?

Definitely! They’re always giving me advice. My mom always says don’t equate your self-worth with your career and that “disappointment is part of the business.”

How were you handpicked by Kasi Lemmons for the role of Maria?

It was a very long process that took auditioning for over a year and a half. I would send in tapes and they wanted to keep up with what I was doing. I’ve known Kasi since I was four years old but we didn’t establish our own relationship until I was much older. We developed a relationship while I was attending Columbia and Kasi lived in Harlem. Kasi heard me playing the guitar and told me I was going to be in her film. She supported me and rallied for me. I was in complete shock when I heard I was cast in the film.

How was it working opposite Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett?

They’re so inspirational and such trailblazers in their careers. I have nothing but respect for them. My first scene I shot was with Forest Whitaker. I was so nervous. I told him I’ve never done television or anything and he said [during their scene] “you got this.”

What have you learned from them about the craft?

There’s so much. I learned how to hone my character and I learned a lot about chemistry from my counterpart.

Were you nervous singing opposite Jennifer Hudson?

I was excited. I was a very eager learner and wanted to show my stuff. But, it’s all about teamwork. Our voices complement each other. Her voice is so powerful. Of course you’re nervous, but it’s a job and you’ve got to remember that.

What’s next for you? Back to school or will you be auditioning for other film roles?

I’m still a full-time student. I’m still in classes and doing mid-terms. I’m very grateful for it. I definitely want to get my degree but I am auditioning. I’m releasing my first music video in a few weeks. I shot the video in 2012 and it is part of the reason I got the film role. I sent the song in as part of my package.

How was it working with Mary J. Blige and Tyrese?

Tyrese is so fun. He has a big personality and he was really cool. It was really inspirational.

What do you hope that people will take away from the film?

I think that in the spirit of the holidays, it’s a story of forgiveness and its challenging people to forgo judgment and be open-minded.