Can’t Stop Watching: Kasi Lemmons On ‘Black Nativity,’ How Black Americans Want to See Themselves On Screen

"Black Nativity" director Kasi Lemmons offers suggestions to Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jacob Latimore. (Photo: Fox Searchlight)

I first became familiar with Kasi Lemmons from her role as an FBI trainee in 1991’s “The Silence of the Lambs”–one of my favorite movies–but upon careful inspection, I soon realized that Lemmons also was one of the four women with whom Spike Lee’s character Half-Pint was hoping to score in 1988’s “School Daze.” The 52-year-old has expanded her resume tremendously since then. She wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed 1997 film “Eve’s Bayou” starring Lynn Whitfield, Samuel L. Jackson and Jurnee Smollett-Bell.  It also featured the legendary Diahann Carroll, unrecognizable as a voodoo practitioner. Lemmons is obviously gifted, I mean, who else could get the fabulous Dominique Deveraux to wear mud on her face on camera?

“I had a great time with her,” Lemmons says of working with Carroll. She’s enjoyed many of the thespians she’s directed, including Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Sheen and Taraji P. Henson in 2007’s “Talk to Me” and Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker in her latest project, “Black Nativity.”

“Black Nativity” is a film version of Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright Langston Hughes‘ 1961 all-black musical of the same name. It has an all-star cast that also includes Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige and Lemmons’ husband, actor Vondie Curtis-Hall. It debuted Wednesday, inviting moviegoers to officially kickoff the holiday season. 

When she’s not working behind the camera, Lemmons can be found teaching directing to graduate film students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Lemmons, who had to rush off to teach a class after our interview, talked to XFINITY TV about her new film “Black Nativity,” her favorite holiday movies and how black Americans want to see themselves on screen. 

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Why did you retell “Black Nativity” in the manner you did?
I was approached by the producers to see if I would be interested in doing a version of it. I was like, “yes,” because I have a personal memory of being a kid and going to see it every year. I really felt personal connection to the material. I feel very, very connected to Langston Hughes, too; he was super important to me in my life and in my childhood. I felt like I wanted to make more than the nativity story; I wanted to write about a family that was kind of struggling with issues and how they’re kind of informed by this production of “Black Nativity” and the nativity story. I wanted to have a more relevant aspect of the story.

What is the essential theme you want the audience to take away after viewing “Black Nativity?”
I want them to be entertained. When I was a kid and I would come out [from watching the play] with this kind of sense of incredible joy and felt very uplifted. I wanted to make a film that would make you think about your life and family and put you in the right frame of mind for the holiday season.

What’s your favorite holiday movie?
I like a lot of them. I’ve got to say, I love “Love Actually;” I really enjoy watching that during the holiday season. I like “A Christmas Carol,” also. I like a lot of them but “Jesus Christ Superstar” is one that I watch during the holidays even though it’s not a holiday movie. Somebody’s always playing it on TV and it’s one of my favorites. You know, I kind of grew up in the age of rock operas, so I’m really into them.

“Black Nativity” is premiering  during a time that some are calling a sort of golden age black cinema. But some people aren’t happy with the number of black American subservient-themed films like “12 Years a Slave,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” “The Help” and “Django Unchained” that have come out in the past couple of years and feel they’re unnecessary. What’s your take?
As rich and varied as our past has been and all of the things and all of the jobs we’ve had to do and the things we had to do just to survive, of course I think we should tell our history. I think it’s important; it’s important to anyone’s history. We’re in subservient roles because that’s where we’ve been. To me the best thing about this year is that we have historical drama, romantic comedy and contemporary musical–a full spectrum of films. So I wouldn’t want to see just films where people are maids. I wouldn’t want to see just films where African Americans are in subservient roles but of course, it’s part of our history, so there should be a place for that. Absolutely.

I definitely want to tell stories about the civil rights movement. I think that’s something I’m very attracted to as a storyteller and I’ve always wanted to tell those stories. I think there are definitely stories that are interesting: our resilience, how we come through hard times and how we evolved and what we had to do. Our history is very interesting to me and I’m not afraid of it.

Your movies “Eve’s Bayou” and “The Caveman’s Valentine” deal with supernatural themes. Will you do this again in your future work?
I would certainly do that. I’m a big believer in a whole lot of things–it’s the other and the spiritual world and how we interact with it has always been very important to me. I’m sure some of my films have that aspect in it, a belief in things unseen.

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Supernatural themes are becoming more popular with TV shows, especially those featuring black actors. You see Angela Bassett in “American Horror Story: Coven” and there’s “Sleepy Hollow,” too.
We come from storytellers and myth makers. I think that our culture lends itself, too–and certainly, there are superstitions and stuff like that–but I do think the spiritual world has been important to African Americans and we feel very close to the spirit. I love those stories, I really do. I have always enjoyed things that are not strictly grounded in absolute concrete reality. “Eve’s Bayou” was a very potent family story to me.

There’s been talk about the lack of quality roles for black actresses in Hollywood. What have you observed? 
It certainly helps if we have women and African Americans behind the camera. It helps if we are the storytellers because we know how to express ourselves accurately. We see ourselves in a variety of roles. We just don’t see ourselves in subservient roles. We see ourselves as surgeons, doctors, psychiatrists and interesting people and not just a carbon copy of other races. Like Caucasians, we kind of can portray the full three-dimensional reality–you know, give ourselves the textures we know we have.

ABC’s “Scandal” is all the rage right now, particularly with black women. Is there a TV show that you enjoy watching?
“Scandal’s” awfully fun. I love Kerry [Washington]. I was a huge fan of “Breaking Bad,” I’ve got to say. And right now, I definitely have enjoyed Angela on “American Horror Story.” She’s awesome.

Have you ever directed a TV show before? Ava DuVernay and Debbie Allen have recently directed “Scandal”episodes. Would you be interested in that? 
No, I haven’t [directed a TV show]. Absolutely, I’m certainly not against [directing an episode of “Scandal]. I’m definitely interested in it.

There are a lot of people who enjoy your work. Would you get back in front of the camera? What can we expect from you in the future?
I don’t have so many plans for getting in front of the camera but I would if someone asked me to do it. I love acting; it’s my first love and it’s very important to me. I’m pretty busy as a writer-director and I’m very interested in a lot of things–there are a lot of projects that I want to work on. It takes a lot of will and a lot of energy to get a film up and running so that’s my major focus.

Any closing thoughts?
I just want people to come out and see “Black Nativity” this weekend. The great thing that’s happening this year is that these [black] films are performing well at the box office. It’s super important to get the audience out the first weekend. It’s really important if you want to see a variety of films that you support them. We would then keep seeing a full spectrum of films directed by and starring African Americans in a variety of things… you would have all kinds of historical films, action films, musicals, comedies and dramas. That’s what we want: the full spectrum of entertainment that’s available to the mainstream audience. And that has not been available to us with our faces onscreen and behind the camera.

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Follow Aisha I. Jefferson on Twitter @AishaIman.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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