December 11, 1961. Writer Langston Hughes debuted his play “Black Nativity” at the Lincoln Theater in New York City. The all-black production about redemption and forgiveness moved to a church-bred backdrop full of the holy-ghost with deep, stomach-belted gospel songs and barefoot divas flinging their arms in African inspired liturgical dance moves bouncing to the beat of the Lord.
Hughes, mixed with Black, Native American and Caucasian, wanted his production to reflect racial love – an adoration of all things black, written to soulful singing and heart-hugging respect of Harlem, NY. Six years after its opening, as one of the only African-American shows of its time to ever play at Lincoln Theater, the great Langston Hughes died of complications from prostate cancer. His ashes still reverently lay beneath a medallion in the foyer of Harlem’s Schomburg Center.
But every year around the holidays, his name and play are paid tribute with performances of “Black Nativity” on stages across the country. And this year, thanks to writer and director Kasi Lemmons, the festive cheer is stepped up to a 2013, mainstream cinematic scale, with a colorful, vibrant ode to Hughes and his history-making creation on movie screens across the nation.
The story of Black Nativity is simple: A poor boy from Baltimore named Langston (Jacob Latimore), disgruntled over life’s conditions with his mother (Jennifer Hudson), whose home is on the verge of eviction, is sent to spend Christmas with his well-off estranged grandparents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) who head a prestigious church in Harlem. Along the way, he meets angels (Mary J. Blige), mysterious thugs (Tyrese), random hardrocks with hearts (Nas), and stumbles upon unforgettable lessons on love, forgiveness, and redemption. Strumming to the tune of an immaculate musical backdrop, the story’s upbeat hip-hop, R&B, and gospel soundtrack is so addictive and vibrant that diversified heads of every demographic will nod − from the corner store hustler, to the church-going usher. There’s something warm and familiar about Black Nativity that will appeal to all. "I think my favorite part was the small [quote] that Forest's character makes when he says, "I'd rather be a lamp post in Harlem than to live in Georgia,'" says Raphael Saadiq, who headed up music production for the film. “I felt like my living, growing up in Oakland where I learned a lot, like too many things even to talk about − lost a lot of family members, brothers, sisters to tragic tragedy. And when I heard that [quote], that's one of the things that just always stuck out."
Saadiq, who came to Black Nativity through a friend that helped finance the film, says Langston Hughes’ history inspired the soundtrack’s making. "People kept telling me more about Langston Hughes that I didn't know about. ‘Have you heard this? Have you read this book?’ But what I really held on to was the part of Black Nativity that speaks about a family not having enough money to celebrate Christmas and buy gifts. So they all get together to do this play. I sort of took that and kind of ran with it and used the warmness of that to make live music too."
Despite a full schedule with family and work, Lemmons put her everything into making this film. "I've been working 80-90 hours a week for over a year," she said. "Show business is not for the fainted heart and filmmaking is not for the fainted heart. You have to have a passion, like a burning passion, in stories that you must tell, art that you must express at this level and in this form, in this medium."
Lemmons had to make Black Nativity. She was hypnotized into bringing its inspiring story to the masses. One of a never-ending inner marathon struggle to forgive family mistakes of the past; to love and live in the present; to make this necessary holiday movie from an African-American perspective. Knowing that it resonates and helps fluff up the often deflated, socialized, and dreaded expectations of impending holiday family gatherings that with a little faith and patience − like some of the themes in this movie − might actually turn out to be not so bad after all.