Forgiveness is an easy word to say, but a hard verb to put into action. Forgiveness of others is even easier than forgiving oneself. That was one of the themes on writer/director Kasi Lemmons’ mind when she set out to write the theatrical version of Langston Hughes’ famous libretto, Black Nativity.
The musical film Black Nativity is about a young Langston (played by Jacob Latimore), who is sent to spend the Christmas holiday in Harlem with his estranged grandparents, Reverend and Mrs. Cobb (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett, respectively). The Cobbs’ daughter, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), has stopped speaking to them after a falling out around Langston’s birth.
But, being separated from his mother during a season geared toward family isn’t Langston’s only source of contention. He knows nothing about his father and is on the verge of losing his identity. That’s when a host of characters come into Langston’s view to help guide him.
“I believe the inspiration came from Kasi and what she believes an angel is,” said Mary J. Blige about her wigged-out character, simply titled Platinum Fro, who serves as Langston’s guardian angel in the film. “When I read the script I thought, ‘Wow, she’s foxy; she’s fun.’ And, I wanted to be something a little lighter for a change.”
Other colorful and musical characters in the film include the Street Prophet Isaiah (rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones) and Jojo or Joseph (Luke James) and a pregnant Maria or Mary (Grace Gibson). A homeless couple, they show Langston that he’s not alone and that he needs to be grateful for what he has. This is also just as much Naima’s story as Langston’s. Naima must fall to rock bottom, before she can open herself up to forgive her parents for something they did years ago.
“We have choices and in some of those choices, we all make mistakes,” said Bassett about the film’s central storyline. “But, if our intentions are pure and there’s breath in our body, we can make it right. Forgiveness is vital and it’s key.”
Forgiveness. Being grateful. These themes not only resonate within the film, but also on its soundtrack, composed and arranged by maestro executive music producer Raphael Saadiq. Saadiq, a first-pick of Lemmons, rehearsed the cast and got them in fighting form to belt out the 12 songs that really make this musical pop.
This is Saadiq’s film debut. Notable tracks on the soundtrack include remixes of Be Grateful, Fix Me Jesus, Jesus is on the Mainline, and Stevie Wonder’s As. All of the cast is featured on this soundtrack, including Tyrese Gibson (as Loot), Whitaker (who has a background in stage musicals) and Bassett.
“It’s not like you have these choices every single day, that a great role and a great opportunity comes your way and you get to be challenged,” Bassett said about singing on camera for the first time in her career. “I’m not known for being a singer and I’m not a singer. I don’t tell anybody that I’m a singer. But, I can lip sync like any other.”
As a Christmas holiday film that pays homage to a staple of the black community, Black Nativity is a great addition. It isn’t the traditional Christmas movie – there is some weight to it – and the central family of the story mirrors any family in Anywhere, USA, with the matriarch of the family holding it together with warmth and kindness.
Or as Bassett describes her Mrs. Cobb gently fighting the war to reconnect her splintered family: “Just love. Love of her husband. Love of her church family. Love of her grandson that she never met. We may have an opportunity to heal this, but we cannot be so regimented and judgmental.”
All things considered during a holiday season that celebrates the values of its namesake, forgiveness, being grateful, and loving one another should be at the top of everyone’s shopping list. These things are free.
“It’s a reflection on our times and the everyday miracle of forgiveness. I think that forgiveness is one of those great miracles,” said Lemmons about what she wanted audiences to take with them from Black Nativity. “Opening your heart can just open the universe to different possibilities and that’s what I wanted to speak on. Just the power of a gesture.”