Shooting in Harlem
There was never any doubt that BLACK NATIVITY had to shoot in Harlem, the famed
New York neighborhood where Langston Hughes arrived in the 1920s - and helped to
spark the explosion of artistic, literary and cultural expression that became known as "The Harlem
"This film has a lot to do with history for me, going back to the Harlem
Renaissance and to Langston Hughes' part in it. And if you're going to make a film version of BLACK
NATIVITY it really should take place in Harlem," states Lemmons.
But, as a resident of the neighborhood herself, she also saw an opportunity to
explore Harlem as it is now. "I didn't want to get into the romantic, nostalgic Harlem," she
explains, "but actual Harlem, the way it is today in 2013. It's multicultural, and it's quite trendy.
It's chic, yet you can feel the history and character and color there. It's really a combination of
different realities in one central location."
Says Horberg: "This is Kasi's love letter to Harlem. The Harlem landscape has
greatly informed the film visually."
Adds Rattray: "Harlem has been a character in this movie from Kasi's very first
vision of the film. It was really important to work with the Harlem community and have actors
from Harlem, and have everyone enthused by the spirit of Harlem."
The lead actors were able that specific kind of Harlem energy to inform their
roles "The setting is everything. Harlem is like the next biggest character next to Jacob's
character. Being there put you in the element and made it real," notes Jennifer Hudson.
To create the Harlem that Langston Cobbs experiences, Lemmons worked closely
director of photography Anastas Michos (BAGGAGE CLAIM) and with two-time Academy
Award-nominated production designer Kristi Zea (THE DEPARTED, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, AS GOOD AS IT GETS).
"Kristi has made films all over the world but her New York body of work is
really definitive and special. When we heard she was interested in doing something that was more
of an independent film on this scale we raced to her doorstep," recalls Horberg. "She helped us
create a very big little movie - including shooting Time Square as Bethlehem with camels, chariots and
ancient vendors. Her eye for detail and her ability to find locations that really reflect
character and made for special moments have brought a lot of beauty to the movie."
One especially critical location was the Cobbs' quintessential Harlem
brownstone. The filmmakers found one, steeped in history, which used to be a small hotel, but
had become a single-family dwelling. Zea explains: "The people who owned the house had painstakingly
restored it to its former glory, and we were able to bring in some additional furniture and details
and shoot it, almost as is."
Attention to detail was particularly important in Reverend Cobbs' study. "Cobbs'
study is another character in the film because it tells the story of who he was and who
he is now. So all the photos and the art and every item inside his study, and even in his desk
drawers, were very painstakingly researched," says Zea.
Zea brought in a cavalcade of African-American art that is the Reverend's pride
and joy including Tar Beach 2 by Faith Ringgold, Jazz Deluxe II by Romare Bearden,
Aquarium by Loretta Bennett, Four House Top Blocks by Qunnie Pettway as well as Nicodemus Coming to
Christ and The Banjo Lession by Henry Ossawa Tanner, the first African-American painter to gain
international acclaim. "Kristi gave the Cobbs' house so much history. There is so much
fabulous artwork and so many artists represented who mean something to all of America, but especially to
African-American culture," comments Lemmons.
That sense of history also came to life in the work of costume designer Gersha
Phillips (THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES) who last worked with Lemmons on TALK TO ME. "Gersha did so much with limited resources. From the angel wings on Mary J.
Blige, to the shepherds of Bethlehem, to the costumes on the dance troupe that comprised our nativity
dancers, it has been incredible to see the colors and designs, invention and coherence she brought to
the vision. For each character Gersha found a language fitting to who they were in the story," says
Yet for all for all of the film's pageantry, music, dance and visual
electricity, Lemmons says in the end it all came down to wanting to depict a real family facing real
questions of faith and connection. "Even though we have music and dancing I wanted the film to always
be rooted in everyday life," she says. "This family is going through things every family goes
through, even the miracles that happen to them are everyday miracles. And they are dealing with
issues that are very simple to even if they're quite difficult to realize. Practicing love is not
always easy. Melting the hardness in your heart is not always easy. But the ideas are simple."
She also hopes that like real life, the film links the present and the future
with the achievements of the past. "BLACK NATIVITY addresses our times and the financial
crises and what families are going through right now, but it also takes us back to what Langston
Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance still mean to us," Lemmons concludes. "I hope it's both
timely and timeless and about things that are relatable to every person on the planet."
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