Fox Searchlight Calls Off October Start for 'Black Nativity' Amid Trouble Casting Male Lead

Laurence Fishburne, left, and Samuel L. Jackson both passed on the musical.

Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L. Jackson are among several actors who have passed on the musical project, which features Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett in supporting roles.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Christmas won't be coming to Harlem anytime soon. Fox Searchlight is shelving its Kasi Lemmons-helmed musical Black Nativity weeks before it was scheduled to begin production in early October in New York.

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that the long-gestating adaptation, based on the Langston Hughes play that features traditional Christmas carols sung gospel-style, was torpedoed when several male lead potentials passed on the material, including Samuel L. Jackson and Laurence Fishburne. Industry watchers were surprised by Black Nativity's unraveling given that the $10 million project boasted a pair of musical veterans in supporting roles: Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) and Oscar nominee Angela Bassett (What's Love Got to Do With It).

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But others pointed to the dearth of black actors studios believe can carry a film, a pool that also includes Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Don Cheadle, Tyler Perry and Eddie Murphy. Given that the role requires an actor who could sing and be believable as the father of 31-year-old Hudson, the pool shrank considerably.

Nativity centers on the teenage son of a single mother in Baltimore who is sent to Harlem to spend Christmas with the grandparents he has never met. Hudson was set to play the single mother, and Bassett was on board for the grandmother role. Jackson, 63, seemed an ideal fit for the grandfather because he worked with Lemmons on the critically acclaimed Eve's Bayou. But one top agent says Searchlight, known for driving a hard bargain with its backend deals, made the project unpalatable for Jackson, who can command a sizable payday -- especially after this summer's megahit The Avengers. From there, the list of potential stars presented problems.

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For its part, Searchlight says Nativity never had an October start date, though several sources dispute that. "Start dates shift on every film we've ever been involved with," says an insider. But Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper, who has had success releasing films with mostly black casts including Think Like a Man, bristles at the idea that you need a so-called greenlight-worthy star.

"It's kind of a Catch-22 if you say you need a black actor who can greenlight a film," says Culpepper, who is working on a remake of About Last Night with Michael Ealy, Joy Bryant, Kevin Hart and Regina Hall. "But if there aren't any roles to create black stars, how will there be black actors who can greenlight a movie?"