The Black Nativity Lights Up the Screen with Stars and Spirit

UrbanFaith sat down with T.D. Jakes and the stars of the film to discuss what drew them to the project and how the film embodies the black church experience.

“There’s fire in the east, there’s fire in the west, there’s fire among the Methodists.

Satan’s mad and I’m so glad he missed the soul he thought he had. This is the year of jubilee,

the Lord hath come to set us free.”

–Langston Hughes, Black Nativity

Black Nativity, the new film adaptation of Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, is not a literal take on the play’s straightforward gospel narrative. Instead it is a modern retelling that Bishop T.D. Jakes (one of the film’s producers) told UrbanFaith is as much about “hope for struggling families” as it is about bringing the Hughes’ classic to the big screen. “It grapples with the fact that families are hard to hold together and you don’t always do it right,” said Jakes. Even so, when asked why he chose to produce a Langston Hughes project, Jakes said his late mother would “get out of the grave and get him” if he didn’t, because in her hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama, Hughes was afforded the kind of reverence others give to William Shakespeare.

“Rereading the play, I realized that I had to build a story for it to exist in,” said writer/director Kasi Lemmons. She wanted to create a timeless, yet modern film about the “small miracle of forgiveness” — how “when you open your heart, the planets align and it allows God to come through,” she said.

Hughes struggled with issues of faith and had a “complicated” relationship with the church, said Lemmons. “He was very interested, anthropologically and historically, in what the church is for—speaking as African Americans—for our community and what it’s done historically.”

Likewise, faith is a complicated issue for her. “Complicated things were going on in my life, and so it’s infused with a lot of wondering — how do I know what I believe? It was more than a straight-ahead look at it,” she said.

That, along with the vibrant Raphael Saadiq score and the actors’ stellar performances, is what makes Black Nativity compelling. One of the film’s great successes is its full, nuanced portrait of humanity. There are no clear villains or protagonists, just family members struggling to make their way, living with the consequences of their choices, and trying to make things right with themselves, with God, and with each other.

Black Nativity stars Forest Whitaker and Jacob Latimore (Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight)

The Reverend Cornell Cobbs, for example, played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, exhibits deep reverence for black history and culture, but is paying the price for his misguided attempt to keep his daughter from throwing her life away on the wrong guy.

“He’s great in the pulpit, but it doesn’t make him a great dad,” said Jakes. “I see that every day. The notion that because you’re good at one thing means your good at everything is erroneous. He’s growing as a person and as a father.”

Asked whether he had anything to do with this pastoral portrayal, Jakes said Lemmons wrote a realistic depiction of preachers and the church, one without the “toxicity” or disrespect often found in film. “Much of what I see out here now has some venom in it for the church. It’s in the underbelly of the writing … and you can’t wash it out of the script. As we began to send in notes about the script, we weren’t trying to sanitize a pig,” said Jakes.

As the teenage boy who draws the family back together, Jacob Latimore’s character Langston is sent to stay with his grandparents over the Christmas holiday while his mother tries to figure out a solution to their financial problems. He doesn’t understand their estrangement from his struggling mother and challenges his grandfather, the pastor, about their beautiful Harlem home. “You got this tight crib… What kind of parents are you?” he says. “We’re the broken-hearted kind,” the pastor answers, with all the brilliant pathos one would expect to be infused into words spoken by an actor of Whitaker’s caliber.

The film’s stars were drawn to the project for many of the same reasons its producer and writer/director were.

Whitaker comes from a family of Southern Baptist preachers, but said the universal themes of love and forgiveness resonated with him. In his work, he strives for connection – connection with his characters and their connections with others. “That’s the driving force of all of my work. Now, I may not be able to accomplish it as completely in my life as I would like. I try. But, certainly in my work, the quest, the amount of dedication that I move towards, is in a spiritual realm. It is guided completely by my understanding of connection and my understanding of the divine,” said Whitaker.

“Forgiveness is everything, because people make mistakes. In the movie, the family made a mistake and the child needed to have his family,” said Mary J. Blige, who plays Langston’s platinum-haired guardian angel. Asked about her own journey with forgiveness, Blige said becoming a Christian was transformative. “Understanding what it is, reading the word, and understanding how important forgiveness is for you—not for someone else and not for God—for you, it changed my life,” she said.

Jennifer Hudson, who plays the reverend’s daughter Naima, grew up in church and is raising her son there too, she said. She was drawn to the film by its spiritual and family themes. “I’m a holiday fanatic, a family fanatic, and I grew up in church. All of those things are what drew me to the role. I feel as though we’re missing those things today. Where are those family films that you can sit on the couch together or go to the movies and see together?” said Hudson.

Several of the stars, including Blige and Hudson, knew little of Langston Hughes before signing on to the project. Angela Bassett, on the other hand, said reading his work as a teenager is what made her want to be an actor.

At the press junket UrbanFaith attended in Los Angeles, there was much talk about whether black films are a trend this year and what it means if they are. “It’s such a weird little conversation. There are more films with people that look like you,” said Angela Bassett, who plays the pastor’s wife, Aretha Cobbs. “When we’re playing characters, we’re just playing human beings. So, to be boxed or limited … it’s just odd. It’s good work, the films that are out, it’s good work and varied work and that’s good. If it’s a trend, may it continue until it’s not a trend and it just is.”

“The black community has fought for human rights and personal rights. It translates itself to other communities and it continues to move forward,” said Whitaker. “So it’s an indicator that a broader spectrum, as Angela said, is about to open… It’s a progression of healing that has to occur and it’s actively happening. We’re all seeing it.”

Yes, we’re all seeing it and, like this film, it’s good.

A Washington D.C. audience heartily and vocally embraced the film last week. A group of middle-aged women told UrbanFaith afterwards that they loved it, but a young journalist said he had trouble figuring out what was going on with a dream sequence and adjusting to characters breaking into song amidst the dialogue. He also said he sometimes felt like he was in church. Back in LA, Hudson said the film set felt like church to her at times too.

If people associate their experience of this film with church – where they’re challenged and/or bored, uplifted and/or embarrassed, so be it. “Talking about religion may kill your faith,” Hughes wrote in his play. “People who really believe don’t worry about it—because the Lord is going to make a way.”

About the author, Christine A. Scheller

Christine A. Scheller is a widely published journalist and essayist, and an editor-at-large at UrbanFaith. She lives with her husband at the Jersey Shore and in Washington, DC, where she helps facilitate dialogue between scientific and religious communities.
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