Casting Black Nativity
To find her Langston, Kasi Lemmons was willing to look as long and as hard as it
would take. She needed someone who not only could pull off the trifecta of singing,
dancing and acting, but had the qualities of a street-smart, fatherless child, an outsider to New York
City teetering on the edge but with the potential to transform. In the midst of auditions, she found all
that in Jacob Latimore, a rising young R&B singer and actor (VANISHING ON 7th STREET, the forthcoming THE
MAZE RUNNER) who is just coming to the fore.
"I needed to rest my movie on this kid's back - and as soon as I met Jacob I
knew he was the person I could do that with," she says. "I still met other kids, but there was
no one else like him." Celine Rattray was familiar with Latimore from the mystery-thriller VANISHING ON
7th STREET, which she also produced - but she was awestruck by how he took on
playing Langston with a personal fervor. "It's been such a pleasure to see how grown up Jacob is
now at 17," says Rattray. "And he has blown my mind playing Langston. The movie really relies on
him, both creatively and from a production standpoint, because he is in nearly every scene
-- and he really delivers."
Latimore himself knew playing a complex character in a modern musical would be a
major undertaking - which only excited him more. "Langston really goes on a big
journey," he notes. "He's going to meet his grandparents, but at the same time he's trying to figure
out why he's never met them, and at the same time he's learning about faith, forgiveness and
He was excited about the potential of the story to touch people in all kinds of
families. "I think the most important thing people will see in this film is a family
reuniting," Latimore says, with a youthful enthusiasm that echoes the film's themes. "I hope it will encourage
the fathers out there who haven't been there for their kids, and I hope it will encourage teens out
there to express their true emotions. Langston is someone who feels he has to be hard on the outside but he
has a real sensitive core. He learns that it's OK to express how you feel - and that's something that
made this role important to me."
Another huge draw for Latimore was the chance to play the son of Jennifer
Hudson, the Academy Award winner whose powerhouse voice and palpable emotions in DREAMGIRLS
became a paragon of the movie musical performance. "One of the most rewarding things
about BLACK NATIVITY was getting a private concert from Jennifer every other take," Latimore
muses. "It's been incredible to see her perform up close every day."
Lemmons always envisioned Hudson in the role of Langston's mother Naima, even
while she was writing. But when Rattray met with Hudson, the actress and singer said she
wasn't looking to do another musical at this point in her career. Then, Rattray mentioned BLACK
NATIVITY. "When I brought up BLACK NATIVITY and then mentioned how much Kasi loved her, Jennifer said she'd consider the part."
Hudson took the role of Langston's mother and came to be a champion of the film.
As she explains, "The more I learned about BLACK NATIVITY, the more I was intrigued,
and then when I read the script, I fell in love with the story. It's such a great holiday piece
and that drew me in completely. A project has to mean something to me - and this won me over because
it has so many beautiful elements to it, and its music based, and music is my biggest passion."
She was also drawn to portraying Naima as a single mother who has made her share
of mistakes, but loves her son more than anything and is looking for the strength
to turn things around. "Naima is a very emotional character because she carries the weight of the world
on her shoulders. It's natural to play a mother and to comfort a child for me. It's not too far of
a stretch from my own life. I would look at Jacob and think: what if this was my son 10, 15 years from
now? That made it very real to me," say Hudson.
Hudson was also inspired by the two luminous stars cast as her estranged
parents: Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker (LEE DANIELS' THE BUTLER, THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND) as the Reverend Cobbs and Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett (WHAT'S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT) as his wife Aretha.
"Forest and Angela are two people I've always looked up to and admired," says
Hudson. "This is my second time working with Forest but my first time working with
Angela, and they're brilliant in this. I'm a sponge so I liked absorbing from them, trying to learn
all that I can."
Whitaker plays Reverend Cobbs as a proud, principled, accomplished man, who
nevertheless feels a shame at having been absent in his troubled grandson's life. There's a
wall between them when Langston shows up the day before Christmas while Cobbs is mounting his own
Harlem production of BLACK NATIVITY.
Though Whitaker has never appeared in a movie musical before, when Lemmons saw YouTube footage of him singing, she was convinced that he was the perfect match
for the role. Lemmons says, "He became the backbone of the movie in so many ways. His presence
and experience were so important for all the young actors and recording artists
working around him."
Whitaker approached his character Reverend Cobbs with great care, talking at
length with Lemmons about all the complexities of the eloquent but stubborn character - who
is at once an inspiration to his community, a frustrating mystery to his grandson and a very
human man caught between his own pride and forgiveness of his daughter. "Kasi and I talked about
the character, the music, the movement," he says. "We talked about the Reverend as a man who lives
in a place of intellect, who is very proud of having gone to Harvard and now working in the
Whitaker modeled his portrait of Cobbs in part on a real-life Manhattan figure:
the Reverend Calvin Butts, a highly educated, charismatic, activist minister who, as head of
New York City's Abyssinian Baptist Church, has been involved first-hand in civil rights, social
justice and economic development throughout the city.
"I went to talk to Reverend Butts for a number of hours, and then I also went to
see him do his work at the church and watched his sermons," says Whitaker. "So we started
from that, then moved into the depth of his family relationships, and what the songs were going
As a pastor himself, executive producer T.D. Jakes especially related to
Whitaker's portrait of a wise Reverend who has his own family problems. "I certainly can relate to the
perplexities of blending the values that you hold dear with the people that you hold dear - and
having to come home not being the Reverend but switching hats to be a father," he says. "Having
raised five children and now grandchildren, I have been there and done that and found out that people who
communicate well in front of crowds often find it difficult to communicate one-on-one - that's
the irony of it all. So personally, the performance resonated with me in a way that was quite profound."
Not only does Whitaker sing in the role of Reverend Cobbs, he also inhabits the
soul of a man who has a passion for what music is able to do. "I think, to Reverend Cobbs,
music is a way of connecting to his audience and a way of connecting to the spirit for himself.
It's a part of the internal workings and emotions of what it feels like to connect to the divine," the actor
A high point for Whitaker was working with the film's multi-talented ensemble
and especially with Latimore in what he expects is a breakout role. "Jacob's singing
is great, his dancing is impeccable, and his performances in the dramatic scenes are very real. He was
right there in the reality of the situation, making these scenes work," he comments.
Equally key was the casting of Reverend Cobbs' wife Aretha. Lemmons always had
just one person in mind for the woman who urgently yearns to make a real connection with
the grandson she's never known: Angela Bassett. She and Lemmons have been friends for years and
always wanted to work together. Says Bassett: "Kasi and I have a history that goes back to when
we began as actresses beating the pavement, and knowing her work, I wanted to be a part of her world
and her vision."
Once on the set, she was even more excited by Lemmons' way of working. "Kasi
comes from an acting background so she's very specific. Yet she's also very cool,
calm, gentle and nurturing. So you just want to give her your all, give her more, and then do it
Bassett was also thrilled at the prospect of working alongside Whitaker as an
actor for the first time. "It is absolutely one of my dreams come true. I worked with him as
the director of WAITING TO EXHALE, but I've always wanted to work with him in front of the
camera where you're eye-to-eye. I adore him as a human being. I've enjoyed working with him
in every scene."
Working with Whitaker and Bassett proved to be an empowering experience for the
rest of the cast. "Being around Forest and Angela made me realize there is a whole other
level to this thing called acting," muses Tyrese Gibson who plays Loot. "It's made me reach deep
down inside of me and ask myself, 'Am I really bringing it?'" Gibson, a Grammy-nominated R&B
songwriter and actor best known for his role as Roman Pearce in the hit FAST AND FURIOUS series of
films, was intrigued by the project from the start. "I was really moved by Kasi's passion
for the story, by what she wanted to do, by how she wanted to do it and the people she wanted to do it
with," he recalls. He especially enjoyed forging his character Loot - the pawnshop hawker who first
meets Langston in a jail holding cell but comes full circle with him. "I really spent
a lot of time thinking about Tyson, and Kasi got a lot of emails from me with questions about different
things," he says. "I was always thinking: What would he say? What would he do? How would he react? I
really wanted to know him."
Another esteemed musician, the legendary soul singer Mary J. Blige, takes on the
role of Angel, a memorable Harlem local who morphs into an angel in Langston's dream.
Says Blige: "The role just jumped off the page for me as I was reading it; it just blew me away.
I just loved her jacket and her hair and loved that she was so New York-fly but an angel in the end."
For Lemmons, Blige was a thrill to work with. "It was just a gift to have her
join us," says the director.
Rap star and songwriter Nasir Jones - better known as Nas - was cast as the
street prophet Isaiah. Like the rest of the cast, he felt a connection to the story that went
beyond just a movie role. "This is definitely a passion project for me. When I do something I have to care
about it, it has to touch me, I have to feel it; it has to make sense and this did all of those
things for me," he says.
Rounding out the cast are Vondie Curtis Hall as the Harlem pawnbroker who knew Langston's father; Luke James as Jo-Jo and Grace Gibson as Maria, the exuberant
young pregnant girl who becomes a key part of Langston's Nativity dream.
Gibson was the very first person cast in BLACK NATIVITY. Recalls Lemmons: "In
trying to get the movie greenlit, I had to do a presentation for Fox, so I called a
young singer I know very well who I thought would make a great Maria - that was Grace - and asked if she
would do a music video with me. We shot the loveliest video of 'Silent Night' and that ended up
moving the film forward."
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