by Matt Stevens | Fri., Nov. 29, 2013 8:00 AM
Ready for some holiday cheer?
A celebrated gospel play by Langston Hughes gets an update in this heartfelt (if saccharine) melodrama. Jacob Latimore stars as Langston (yep, named for the writer), a streetwise teen who lives in Baltimore with his single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson).
Strapped for cash, Naima sends Langston to New York City to spend Christmas with her estranged parents, Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett). Unwilling to live by the strict preacher's rules, Langston looks for a way to return home while also trying to uncover secrets that tore his family apart.
Before you behold this Nativity, check out these five joyous facts:
Birth of the Show: Hughes' Black Nativity was first performed in the late 1950s (as Wasn't That a Mighty Day) and later opened on Broadway in 1961. A retelling of the classic Christmas story, the play incorporated traditional carols sung in gospel style, plus a few original songs. Despite its ongoing popularity, the show, like a dream deferred, seemed impossible to adapt for the big screen. That changed when producer Celine Rattray and actress/director Kasi Lemmons discovered their mutual passion for the project and decided to give the musical a more contemporary context.
Dream Girl: Lemmons always envisioned Hudson for the role of Naima, even while writing the screenplay. An Oscar winner for Dreamgirls, Hudson wasn't looking to do another musical at this point in her career, but she was intrigued by the project and agreed to read the Nativity script. She fell in love with the story and became a champion of the film. As expected, Hudson totally kills it on all her songs, especially the rousing spiritual "Be Grateful." That's a powerhouse voice to be grateful for.
From Butler to Pastor, From Witch to Wife: The star of Lee Daniels' The Butler, Whitaker trades his White House tux for Baptist Church vestments to play Reverend Cobbs. Whitaker had never appeared in a movie musical before (though he had played jazz giant Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood's Bird), but after Lemmons saw YouTube footage of him singing she knew he was perfect for the part. Bassett, currently casting voodoo spells on American Horror Story: Coven, mixes it up as a devout preacher's wife. Though she was directed by Whitaker in Waiting to Exhale, this is the first time the two have shared the screen.
Hark! The Herald Actors Sing: Talented musicians round out the supporting cast, including Grammy-nominated R&B songwriter, model and actor Tyrese Gibson (Fast and Furious), who plays pawnshop hawker Loot. Rap star (as Nas) and songwriter Nasir Jones is the street prophet Isaiah, while Grace Gibson and Luke James—as homeless versions of Mary and Joseph—duet on a lovely rendition of "Silent Night." Most heavenly of all, legendary soul singer Mary J. Blige sports angel wings while wailing "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow." Hmm, "No More Drama (No More Pain)" would've worked, too.
A Sense of Community: It was important to Nativity's filmmakers that they shoot in Harlem, where Hughes arrived in the 1920s and helped spark the creative movement known as the "Harlem Renaissance." A resident of the neighborhood herself, Lemmons wanted to portray Harlem as it is today—multicultural and trendy but also with rich history and character. She and her team used numerous Harlem actors and locations, including a historical brownstone—a small hotel previously converted into a private home—that served as the Cobbs' residence.
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