Black Nativity’ director Kasi Lemmons pays homage to Langston Hughes
A proven talent as an actress, writer and director, Kasi Lemmons continues to tantalize creatively with her thought-provoking body of work. Her work as an actress includes roles in “Silence of the Lambs” opposite Jodie Foster, and Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” as well as “Hard Target,” “Fear of a Black Hat,” “Candyman” and “Vampire’s Kiss.”
Kasi’s directorial debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” was the highest-grossing independent film of 1997. The film won the Independent Spirit Award for “Best First Feature” and received seven NAACP Image Award nominations, including Best Picture.
Her sophomore offering, “The Caveman’s Valentine,” opened the 2002 Sundance Film Festival to audience and critical acclaim. And, in 2008, she received an NAACP Image Award for directing “Talk to Me.”
Her guest teaching and speaking credits include Yale University, MIT, UCLA, USC, the Los Angeles Film School and the University of Pristina Film School in Kosovo. Currently, Kasi is an associate arts professor at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts.
She talks to The Banner about her adaptation of the Langston Hughes musical “Black Nativity,” which stars Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Tyrese, and her husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall.
How daunting a task is it to adapt a Langston Hughes stage classic to the screen?
It was very daunting. One of my foolish qualities is to jump boldly, and then think about it later. It was daunting, but I also felt honored, and took the opportunity very seriously. I wanted to pay homage to someone who was such an important literary figure in my life. I think Langston Hughes would be proud of the picture, yet it’s a contemporary story about a family living in Harlem. I named the lead character Langston, put a little bit of poetry in there, and some Langston Hughes quotes, and, of course, his stage play, “Black Nativity.”
Some directors make faithful adaptations; others feel free to take license with the source material. Which approach did you employ here?
“Black Nativity” certainly lends itself to reinterpretation. It was kind of designed to be infused with the creativity of whoever is putting it on, and every performance is a little bit different. So, this is definitely my version of “Black Nativity.” It has its own story, which is a family story. Hughes’ “Black Nativity” informs it, and is contained within it.
What did it take to contemporize Langston Hughes Black Nativity?
Just imagination. In my case, I decided to make it a contemporary story very relevant to today’s audience.
Were there any emotional moments on set where tears just flowed after you yelled, “Cut!”
Yeah, quite a few actually, especially when it had to do with the music and people were singing, and also the big scene at the end. We were all crying. Absolutely!
Two of your cast members, your husband, Vondie, and Forest Whitaker are also directors. Did that ever pose a problem on the set?
No, they both came as actors, and were very able to the actor-director process. They came to play, and that’s what we did. However, I did occasionally ask each of them for their advice as fellow filmmakers, because their opinions mattered to me.
The songs in the movie were moving and their lyrics enhanced the storyline. Was this intentional?
Yeah, the songs are very much a part of the story, and not separate
In a movie with so many stars, you took a big chance by casting an unknown, Jacob Latimore, in such a pivotal role. How did you come to cast him as Langston?
I knew that there was a good chance that I would end up with a newcomer in that role. I love working with young artists. Jacob was the first kid that I auditioned. After he walked out, I turned to my husband and said, “I think that’s the kid. I don’t know if I have to look any further. He’s the one!” He’s a real star.
Why did you set the film in Harlem?
It is gentrifying very fast, and I feel proud to have photographed it where it is right now. I’m interested in the history of Harlem and in modern Harlem. It’s a very interesting place.
What message do you think people will take away from “Black Nativity?”
I think the movie has a very clear message. It’s about a family in crisis facing some of the very familiar struggles we face in our communities. It’s really about love, redemption, forgiveness, faith and family, the things that have gotten us through so many hard times, and that continue to get us through them. When times are hard, we need each other. That’s what the movie’s about. And I hope you’ll leave the theater inspired and ready to enjoy your family.
Are you going to release your next film sooner?
I would like to. Honestly, I do spend most of my time between films trying to get the next one made.
Do you think the fact that this has been a banner year for black films will make it easier for African-American directors to find funding?
Yes, because the films are performing, and Hollywood is all about the money.
With so many classic films being redone, is there a remake you’d like to do?
If I like a film, I usually appreciate the way it was made the first time. But my cousin would very much like me to redo “The Wiz” one day.
Is there anything that you promised yourself you’d do if you became famous, that you still haven’t done yet?
I haven’t written a novel. I am overdue for that. I’ve been wanting to write one for a very long time.
What was the last book you read?
I’m reading a lot of books at once. Some of the books lying around my bed right now are a biography of Bob Marley, “The Keep” by Jennifer Egan, “The History of Love,” “The Black Count,” and “Miss Ann in Harlem.” It’s a wonderful book about the white women of the Harlem Renaissance.
What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
Perseverance is what I tell my students. It’s important that you keep your dream alive, because you’re going to encounter a lot of obstacles, and no one is going to dream big for you. You have to have the fortitude and the resilience to stick with your own dreams. That can be hard.
When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
I see Kasi. I don’t over-think my existence. I see me. I’m a very imperfect person, like most of us are. I’m also a very busy person. I have a family. I have a career. I’m a professor at NYU. I have a full life for which I feel grateful every day.
Did you encounter any racism growing up in Newton, a suburb of Boston?
Oh, sure, I encountered it when I was growing up, and it has kind of made me who I am, although I came to love Boston. It’s a complicated city. Some of the smartest people in the world are in Boston. How many institutions of higher learning are in that one area? It’s a pool of intelligence. It’s a great town. You can encounter racism anywhere. I have a lot of nostalgic feelings about Boston. It was a cool place to grow up.
How do you want to be remembered?
As someone who tried to be great. I don’t know if one ever gets to greatness, but I’ve put in a good effort, and will continue to do so.