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BLACK NATIVITY

About The Production
BLACK NATIVITY sparks a new incarnation of the 1960s rousing experience created by American poet, playwright and Harlem Renaissance figure Langston Hughes - a joyous holiday event shared by families and communities for generations. Arriving on the screen as a spirited musical ode to dreams chased, faith tested and a family reconnected in the modern city, it showcases talents of an all-star ensemble cast from the worlds of movies, R&B, rap and more. Director Kasi Lemmons brings a song-driven, updated twist to Hughes' take on the most timeless of tales.

Paying homage to Hughes while tapping into our times, Lemmons has re-conceived this Nativity story through the lens of a 21st Century urban fairy tale - the triumphant journey of a broken New York City family as they try to fix the things that have kept them apart for too long. Portraying three generations of family are Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Nasir Jones, Vondie Curtis Hall and Jennifer Hudson. With a score by Raphael Saadiq & Laura Karpman - blending R&B and hip-hop with traditional folk and gospel influences - the musical drama features choreography from Otis Sallid.

The arrival of BLACK NATIVITY on screen has been a long time coming. Hughes' original, genre-busting work - what he called a "gospel song-play" based on the "reverence, awe and jubilation" of folk spirituals - was first performed off-Broadway in the late 1950s with dance legends Alvin Ailey and Carmen De Lavallade in the cast and then at President Kennedy's International Jazz Festival. Critics lauded, for the first time in history, gospel singing entering the realm of mainstream theatre as the production moved to London, Oslo, Brussels, Copenhagen and Rotterdam before hitting a brand new Lincoln Center in 1961.

Yet, for all its ongoing popularity since then, there seemed no way to translate the BLACK NATIVITY experience to film. That changed when producer Celine Rattray, known for such acclaimed indies as Richard Linklater's BERNIE and Lisa Cholodenko's THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT, set herself to the task of bringing the essence of the play in a relevant, entertaining way to today's film audiences.

After approaching the Langston Hughes Estate for the rights in 2009, she found a director, nearly by accident, who was burning to do just that: actress and filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (TALK TO ME, EVE'S BAYOU).

"Kasi and I were having an unrelated meeting when I simply mentioned BLACK NATIVITY in passing," Rattray recalls. "Kasi's eyes immediately went wide and she said 'I am in!'" It turns out that for Lemmons, BLACK NATIVITY was already personal.

"My mother and I have always been among the hundreds of thousands of people who see the musical each Christmas. Just talking about it with Celine brought back memories of the pageantry, the drama and the soul-stirring music -- which for me is impossible to listen to without tears coming to my eyes," Lemmons explains.

Lemmons began writing a screenplay designed to open up the musical with a more immediate and contemporary story - one that would address the realities of today's world while weaving in the resonant themes of the original. To do this, she created a story set in present day Manhattan, hinging it around the quest of a street-wise kid to save his family after he and his single mother are evicted from their foreclosed home. Lemmons named her film's young protagonist Langston Cobbs - after Hughes of course, who was himself raised in an impoverished family only to become a light of inspiration in Harlem.

Young Langston Cobbs is sent to New York to live with his long-estranged grandparents until his struggling mother can get back on her feet. Feeling alone, angered by unfairness and tempted by crime, Langston is desperate for a way out. But when he witnesses the BLACK NATIVITY production his grandfather, Reverend Cornell Cobbs, forces him to attend, it unexpectedly affects him and penetrates his dreams.

Lemmons sees the story as touching on current themes of economic struggle, at-risk kids and divided families while staying grounded in Hughes' emphasis on the power of love, heritage, renewal and keeping dreams within grasp no matter your circumstances.

"I was interested in making a film that speaks to African-American history and spiritual traditions, but I also wanted to create something universally entertaining," says Lemmons of her adaptation. "I saw myself working in the tradition of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, the same kind of musicals that I was attracted to when I was a kid. I wanted to create a spirit-filled experience for all kinds of people from all backgrounds - one that is uplifting and redemptive but not specifically religious."

Once there was a screenplay, producer William Horberg, known for such diversely compelling films as MILK, THE KITE RUNNER, LARS AND THE REAL GIRL and this year's THERESE, was immediately drawn to it. He had previously worked with Lemmons on her film TALK TO ME, starring Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor, but he was surprised by both the ambition and the passion of this very different screenplay.

"Reading the script, I had tears in my eyes," Horberg recalls. "Kasi had created a story of forgiveness and redemption that I felt was important to tell and could touch a lot of people. It struck me as a very special piece of material that I wanted to be a part of. Kasi had a beautiful vision for the movie from the start and that has been infectious."

Also on board was producer Galt Niederhoffer whose films include the Sundance award winner GRACE IS GONE, THE ROMANTICS based on her own novel and ROBOT & FRANK. Executive producers Trudie Styler, T.D.Jakes, Joy Goodwin and Derrick M. Williams completed the team.

Jakes, an actor, writer, producer and also chief pastor of the non-denominational church known as The Potter's House, was excited by the way BLACK NATIVITY touched on themes central to modern spiritual life. "I think there are many themes relating to forgiveness, to the tough work of holding your family together, to how diverse they can be and how the holidays often exacerbate that reality, with the complexity of trying to be picture perfect and creating a lot of stress for people," he says. "The film gives you permission to really grapple with those themes and to communicate over the silence."

For Jakes, another essential quality is the way the story spans three generations. "It's multigenerational," he observes. "Not only does it speak to young people, but it speaks to young people along the lines of where do I fit in the family? Is there a place for me at this table? To me that's an issue that the coming generation is battling with. I think the film is bodacious to take on this subject, and I hope young people will be inspired to find out they are included in the process."

The producing team soon began to hone in on a cast and crew who were equally drawn to the material. Says Horberg, "Making this film was a journey. It's an epic-sized independent movie and we were determined to achieve all that was on the page - which we did thanks to all the incredibly creative people who came together, behind and in front of the camera. Every once in a while you get one of those scripts where the first actors you approach say 'yes' and this has been one of those special films. With Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Nasir Jones, Mary J. Blige, and Jacob Latimore, it's the dream team."

The lure of the film for the actors hooked back to the universality that was so important to Lemmons as she was writing. Comments Tyrese Gibson: "For me this is a film about things we all experience and think about: family secrets, family conflicts and spirituality. What makes it powerful is that anyone can identify with the characters in this movie. This is a movie for everybody, and I believe that with every fiber in my body."

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