The Source Magazine sat down with writer/director Kasi Lemmons, to discuss her latest project, “Black Nativity,” which hits theaters on November 27.
Kasi: Well, the producer approached me and asked me if I was interested in the material and I happened to have a real big connection to it because part of the time I grew up in Boston, which was a major venue for the theatrical production of “Black Nativity.” Also, I have a huge passion for Langston Hughes. As a poet of course, his work affects, but also as a historical figure and what he represented and as an American poet that was famous in his own lifetime. He was like a rock star and so, I have a lot of interest in Langston Hughes and a nostalgia for the material. Then, I was able to write a story around it. So it involves a family and the grandfather is putting on a production of “Black Nativity.” So I was able to kind of fold “Black Nativity” into a larger story that was about a family struggling with old bitterness and resentments, that had a rift in it that badly needed to be fixed.
Q: Can you tell me the creative process? I read you were working on “Black Nativity” for five years
Kasi: Yes, Five years. Well, Celine Rattray approached me in I guess about 2008 and then we put together a story. For the first year, I was really trying to work out what the story was and that was a big process because I had this play, which is very kind of slender and I was trying to find what the story was. Then, we came up with a pitch and I had to go out and find companies. Fortunately, right away I ran into Zola Mashariki of Fox Searchlight and she was like “I want do this!” That part was pretty easy, but then the process of developing and actually writing a script and getting it to the stage where you’re ready for collaborators and you’re ready to show it to actors and see who wants to get involved then the process of getting the actors. You know, if you want a bunch of stellar talent, they all have to be available at the same time so, that was a big thing and we ended up waiting another four months for Forest Whitaker.
Q: Can you tell me about the modernization process for the story?
Kasi: Well, I wanted it to be timeless and yet kind of timely. I wanted a time capsule – at the time we all were going through the financial crisis. I wanted to write about that and how it effects families and how it affected this young mother in particular. I felt that, that was incredibly relevant and that it would always be relevant and at the same time I wanted to refer back to in subtle ways to the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem Renaissance. So, I chose this fifteen year old boy, his name is Langston whose mother had such a passion for Langston Hughes, she named him Langston after the poet and that Reverend Cobbs, his father was part of [Martin Luther] King’s inner circle, so that was how I got some of the family history and the Civil Rights Movement and American history intertwined, but in a very modern story – a very contemporary story.
Q: Can you speak about collaborating with Raphael Saadiq to incorporate the music?
Kasi: Well, it was amazing. It’s really one of the great, great enjoyments of my career is working with and collaborating with incredible people and Raphael Saadiq I couldn’t have asked for a better person. I stalked him once I knew that I wanted him on board I had to go out and get him. I think that, that’s something that sometimes people don’t realize about filmmakers, is that you have to go out and convince people to work with you. He was on the road and I showed up at his hotel (chuckles) and I met him in the lobby and passionately tried to convince him to work with me. He said he was a fan, which I didn’t know, but …I bullied him into saying yes and boy, was that the right decision. He did such an amazing job and we had such an amazing time working together.
Q: How important was it for you to incorporate hip hop into the film?
Kasi: The script always had some hip hop in it. I wanted it to have a full spectrum from Hip hop to R&B to Gospel and sou.l I wanted all of that musically represented.
Q: Can you speak about casting Jacob Latimore in the lead?
Kasi: Well, I knew I had this movie that rests on the shoulders of this fifteen year old boy and that I needed a very special kid and I needed a performer – a kid that could sing, dance and act. Jacob quite honestly was the first kid that walked inside my house to read with me and I kind of fell in love. I was like “Its Him!” and everyone I met afterwards just couldn’t shake this kid. It’s funny Jacob left and my husband and I looked at each other like “That’s the Kid.” It was just the right decision. He was the right person for the job.
Q: Can you speak about collaborating with Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett two legendary actors. They’ve worked together before and they make such a great on screen couple.
Kasi: They’re wonderful, they’re wonderful together they were my dream. I met with Angela and I saw this character in her. I know Angela, so I was looking for a woman with such an enormous heart whose been hurt in her life and just has so much to give and I knew Angela would be wonderful in this role. They’re only a small handful of actors, movie stars that I felt could pull off ” Reverend Cobbs” and Forest, I knew that he sang and that at one point he wanted to be a singer. Yeah, I did the research and I knew that about him. I “googled” this one clip of him on youtube at a benefit singing “Summertime” and I knew that he would be great. He’s very very busy, so at one point I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get him, but I was so so happy that I got the two of them, the whole cast.
Q: Tell me about working with Jennifer Hudson and how she was able to capture Naima?
Kasi: Well, you know I wrote the role for her. She was my only choice, so thank God I got her. I felt that she had in her the ability in her to play this vulnerable and yet tough young mother and that the inner strength that she has would come through and of course the voice . Naima was always written as the voice of the movie, the real singer, I knew that she was going to have the heart-breaking ballads and some really heavy duty singing to do as well as acting and I knew that Jennifer could pull it off.
Q: Next up can you speak about casting Nas?
Kasi: Well, I wanted him involved (chuckles). He and I sat down together and I said, “I really want you in my movie, I’m not sure yet what I want you to do but, I want you to be there.” He said “Okay, I’m in” and so I wrote this little role for him “Isaiah, the prophet”. When I think of Nas, he’s so profound and I said, “Okay, you’re the voice of “Isaiah the Prophet.”
Q: You are in a rare group of African American directors and a smaller group of female African American directors, which I think is amazing, can you reflect on that?
Kasi: Well, it has become important to me in the way that I’m able to inspire other people, to see the potential of a career, that they can look to me and see that they can do it. I guess starting off I didn’t really reflect on it much because it was the way that I chose to express myself. I didn’t really think about it, I kind of thought about just the story that I was just desperately trying to tell, which was my first film “Eve’s Bayou”. I really wanted to tell the story and I came to believe that I was the best person to direct it. That, I really understood the material and that I should direct it and from there, I didn’t really look back. At first, I thought that maybe that would’ve been my only film. I thought if I had something to prove, I proved it and even once I finished it in the editing room, I thought well, that’s It maybe that’s my one…maybe I never have to do that again and then very quickly I was like “Whoa, that was kind of fun, maybe I might be good at it.” So I’ve come to really believe that I have something to offer as a filmmaker, that goes beyond what I had to offer as an actress and maybe this is what I’m meant to do.