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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 redemption."

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 community."

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 to do."

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 observes.

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 again."

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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