'Black Nativity' Something New, Something Authentic

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NEW YORK, NY -- The story of Jesus' birth takes center stage as a modern-day, gospel musical hits theaters.

"Black Nativity" stars Academy Award-winner Jennifer Hudson and is produced by Bishop T.D. Jakes. Jakes said the film demonstrates that families often have to fight to stay together through troubling times.

"Black Nativity" marks Hudson's return to musical theater. She made her acting debut in the musical film "Dream Girls" in 2006.

No Typical Musical Production

But "Black Nativity" is not your typical musical production. Veteran filmmaker William Hornberg described the film in an interview with CBN News during its production in New York City.

"Things that are very, very successful in one medium tend to get adopted by film because there is a sense that there is a built-in audience," Hornberg said.

"So, whether it is 'Dream Girls,' 'Lion King' or 'Chicago,' things cross over. 'Black Nativity' is completely original. There has never been anything else like it," he added.

Hudson's Connection

Hudson told CBN News she connected with the film immediately after reading the script.

"I loved all the elements in it as far as the family aspect, music, the church roots in it. And just the fact that I feel we don't have enough films like that out there that bring family together -- at least not today," Hudson said.

"And I grew up [on] things like that. So, I want to see this come back, and I want to be a part of it, and helping to bring it back," she continued.

In the film, Hudson plays a single mother who is estranged from her parents and struggling to raise her teenage son, Langston. 

Disney Star's Reflection

R&B singer and Disney star Jacob Latimore plays Langston. He spoke with CBN News in between production takes on the set.

"He has tried to be the man of the house his whole life. So really, he tries not to show emotion, but it is there," Latimore said, describing his character.

"Even though I am the leading character, it is a lot of time that I don't even have dialogue," Latimore continued. "I am sort of speaking with my face. And I have to say that has to be one of the hardest challenges."

"What helps me get in character is having a great cast," he confessed.

T.D. Jakes As Producer

Trouble at home forces Langston to spend Christmas with grandparents he's never met, Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs. The roles are played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker and Oscar nominee Angela Bassett.

The story unfolds in modern day Harlem. Many of the scenes are set inside the Harlem's historic St. Luke's Episcopal Church.

Rev. Cobbs successfully leads his flock, but struggles to hold his own family together. That authentic story is why Bishop T.D. Jakes signed on as a producer.

Jakes described Rev. Cobbs' complicated story to CBN News.

"I think that is very typical to what it is like in real life. You play out a scenario in the pulpit that are (your) ideals. That is what ministers do, we talk from the perspective of our ideals," Jakes said. 

"But you go home and you live in your realities. And sometimes the gulf between your ideals and realties are so far that bridging that gap is a life-long pursuit," he added.

Jakes considers the story and the film as part of his ever-expanding ministry.

"Jesus said, 'Go into all the world,' and I don't think he meant we had to go by camel," Jakes said.

"I think there are ways we can go by technology and through theater and drama and movie and cinematography that creates the opportunity for us to be a part of the conversation, rather than stand off from the conversation and criticizing it," he continued.

"For me, it's the option to light a candle or scream at the darkness," he added.

Homage to Langston Hughes

There is a rich history behind this big screen production of "Black Nativity." The play was written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes and performed off Broadway in 1961.

Kasi Lemmons, the film's writer and director, said her movie is "an homage to Langston Hughes in a lot of ways."

"My lead character is Langston. It takes place in Harlem," she explained.

An Emotional Work

The film is also personal. Lemmons recalled going to see the stage production as a child.

"It was a special kind of date. My mom and I had to go see 'Black Nativity,' every year," she told CBN News.

CBN News visited Lemmons on the set at the end of 33 days of shooting what she described as the most emotional work of her career.

"My sister died in the process of working on it. And that was an extremely hard loss for me, like cataclysmic," Lemmons said.

"And I didn't know that I was going to be able to write again, but really how I was going to move forward with that loss," she added. "And so somehow, I put all my feelings into the piece in a way that I can't quite describe. So, it is very personal." 

Just like the 1961 stage production, Lemmons' adaptation is filled with unforgettable music. She partnered with award-wining singer and songwriter Raphael Saadiq on the production.

"The music is sublime. The music just helps to reinforce the universality of the piece. I mean the music is dope. It is really, really happening," Lemmons said.

Bottom line, Lemmons said there is one message in both the music and storyline.   

"For me, it contained what I think are very human questions. Like, how do you keep going and keep believing when so much bad has happened? How do you have faith?" she said.

"The answer I put in the script is proof of God's grace is all around you. You just have to open your eyes," she added.

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Efrem Graham

Efrem Graham

News Anchor & Reporter

Efrem Graham is an award-winning journalist, who comes to CBN News from the ABC owned and operated station in Toledo, Ohio.  He received his master's degree from the Columbia University Journalism School. He also holds a bachelor's degree in English Literature from the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.  Follow Efrem on Twitter @EfremGraham and "like" him at Facebook.com/EfremGrahamCBN.