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Fox Searchlight’s Black Nativity is being released at the end of a year in which movies with an African-American focus, like Lee Daniels’ The Butler and The Best Man Holiday, thrived at the box office.
At the New York premiere of the holiday musical starring Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett and musicians Nas and Mary J. Blige, executive producer T.D. Jakes was encouraged by the other films’ success.
“I think that people are starting to recognize that if you give it quality, people will come and the stereotypes that only certain genres or music would appeal to the African-American community have been proven wrong,” Jakes told The Hollywood Reporter at Monday night’s premiere at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. “I’m hoping that the industry will provide a wider array of films that are a benefit to the African-American community, and also that the community at large can come and enjoy these films and we can entertain each other, and we don’t have to be segregated with our entertainment.”
Jakes is the founder of faith-based production company TDJ Enterprises, which worked on Hudson’s Winnie, about Nelson Mandela‘s wife, and the Whitney Houston–Jordin Sparks film Sparkle.
Although he’s been reaching older audiences through these and other films, Jakes now is turning part of his focus to young viewers. “I’m really looking at doing something in the area for children. I think there’s a great deficit of great films and great entertainment for children, so that’s something that we’re considering here,” he said. “Maybe some animation. I don’t think that you have to sacrifice quality films and entertainment and still be edifying and building people up in a very positive way.”
Black Nativity is a contemporary adaptation of Langston Hughes‘ play, which tells the story of a streetwise teen from Baltimore who’s being raised by a single mother and travels to New York City to spend Christmas with his estranged relatives, a reverend and his wife.
For newcomer Jacob Latimore, who plays the teenage lead Langston, working with veterans like Whitaker, Bassett and Hudson was an inspiring experience. “Watching them work hard and watching them be dedicated to their craft, that just was amazing for me to watch as a newcomer,” he said. “It made me want to go home and read my script and make sure I was ready for the next day.”
Bassett also enjoyed being able to work alongside Whitaker, who directed her in Waiting to Exhale. “All the love and appreciation that I have for him as a director is just maximized when you’re in front of the camera together, you get to look into each other’s eyes,” she said. “You get to look into each other’s humanity.”
But shooting a holiday film in Manhattan presented its share of physical challenges, which producer Trudie Styler detailed.
“We shot in the winter months [and] we needed to turn Times Square into Bethlehem, so having to work in Times Square with camels and sheep and donkeys and people in early costuming depicting shepherds and wise men and angels was no easy feat,” she said. “But we did it with such feeling that we were doing a really great movie, and everyone was always in the best moods, even at 2 a.m. in Times Square in February.”
The composers also worked to tailor their songs to actors who aren’t trained singers, they told THR. But they were surprised by Whitaker’s little-known singing ability, documented on YouTube and confirmed when he nailed one of the film’s songs in one take.
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