Black Nativity’ director Kasi Lemmons pays homage to Langston Hughes

Kam Williams | 12/13/2013, 12:37 p.m.
A proven talent as an actress, writer and director, Kasi Lemmons continues to tantalize creatively with her thought-provoking body of ...
Kasi Lemmons’ newest film release, “Black Nativity,” is a contemporary adaptation of the Langston Hughes’ musical of the same name. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

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.