Photo: Jemal Countess/Getty
Kasi Lemmons’s 1997 directorial debut Eve’s Bayou, an intensely atmospheric coming-of-age tale that mixed family drama, sexual frankness, and even some supernatural elements, instantly pegged her as one of the more unique voices in American film. Since then, she has continued to create an odd, arresting body of work, including the offbeat mystery-drama-fantasy The Caveman’s Valentine and the radio D.J. biopic Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Now Lemmons has arrived with her boldest work to date: a film version of Langston Hughes’s play The Black Nativity, incorporating the Christ tale, a contemporary coming-of-age story, shout-outs to the Harlem Renaissance and Martin Luther King Jr., and musical numbers that run the gamut of styles, from Gospel to hip-hop. She spoke to us about why it took so long to get the film made, the challenges of making a musical, and her approach to adapting this offbeat material.
You’ve been trying to make this film for five or six years. What took so long?
Well, movies always take a long time to make. And believe it or not, this movie was in some ways easier — part of the process was much easier than usual for me because Fox Searchlight always wanted to make it. As soon as I pitched it to them, they were excited. So, it was very committed early on. But part of it was just the process of developing the material. When you start working on adapting this play, you realize there isn’t a lot of story there — it’s a pageant. So you have to create something around it.
I was impressed by how genuinely religious the movie is. It doesn’t play coy with the spiritual aspect of this story. This might seem like an odd question, but were you concerned about that at all?
I don’t know if I was concerned. I think I would have been in some ways concerned not doing it. I don’t think I would have really been doing the Black Nativity. You know what I mean? That being said, it’s the fine line of wanting it to speak to the people that aren’t strictly religious as well. Because I’m not strictly religious. And neither was Langston Hughes. On the other hand, this is a celebration of the black church, in many ways. I didn’t want to shy away from that. I wouldn’t feel I was doing justice to it, if I completely shied away from that.
I’ve always thought of your films as being very visually lush and precise. Was it a challenge to do a musical, with choreography and elaborate musical sequences?
No, it was a great deal of fun. It really was. I’m a fairly adventurous person, so to me it was a blast. So much of the enjoyment I get is from collaborating with people. For me to be able to collaborate with [songwriter] Raphael Saadiq — I mean, that was incredible. And Otis Sallid, he did the choreography and it’s a great, great joy to be on a set where there’s a choir singing and people dancing and these singers. I mean, Jennifer Hudson! She has a fabulous voice. And the actors came to it with a real spirit of adventure. It was quite fun.
What was the biggest challenge with this film for you then?
Time and money is always a challenge. The biggest challenge — besides just being cold, being in New York, having singers sing in the cold — for me is always just in the hire. Hoping that I make the right decisions with the people that I invite to collaborate with me. That’s the scariest part of it to me. Am I gonna pick the right songwriters, music, and composer? Once I’m surrounded by my key crew and I’ve got my actors, it’s a matter of organization and inspiration and all that fun stuff. We were lucky because it was a musical, and we had a lot of rehearsal time. So, I could take that rehearsal time when we were really rehearsing numbers and the choir to really work with the actors as well. So, we were well-rehearsed by the time we got to the set.
The musical scenes function in an interesting way. They bridge time and space — characters who are in different places are suddenly inhabiting the same space when they’re singing. But then, toward the end, when everybody’s actually in the same place — they don’t sing. At least, not for a while. And you have this long scene, a big confrontation, with big emotions. It’s a scene that feels like it should be a big musical scene — but you let them act it out.
Yeah, we let it go on not just without anyone singing, but also without any score for a long time. It’s just actors. And it’s kind of wonderful. At one point we decided, Oh no, it doesn’t need scores. Let them act. That’s the way I wrote it. The moments without music are very important, too. Initially, I had conceived it as more of a musical. And then, during the developing process, I had pulled it back. And then, once we shot and were editing, we pulled it back even further. It became more of a drama with music than a musical.
In that same congregation scene, you also hear the reactions of the people. It’s kind of faint in the background, but it adds a note of levity and self-consciousness to what is a very dramatic scene. Watching it, I thought to myself, I bet they had a lot of conversations in the editing room about how much of the reaction sounds to put in.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s a delicate thing. One thing was that I wanted was to get the church right. I see movies where it doesn’t feel authentic, and it really bothers me. So, for the congregation in the film, many of them actually were church people. And then we mixed that with the neighborhood people, who would have come to the show. So we had a very organic collection of people. And then we let them react as they normally would. A lot of it was just them reacting as people to the scene.
This seems to be a very successful year for films with African-American subject matter, and for African-American directors and actors. You’re a woman in the film industry, you’re an African-American in the film industry. Has it gotten any easier for you over the years?
Easier? I don’t know. I find it very challenging, and I know it’s very challenging for a lot of people. The film industry, you’re always hearing about how much harder it’s gotten to make independent films. But that being said, I think it’s a good time. People are realizing that African-American films perform, that they can also be quite prestigious — 12 Years a Slave and these wonderful historical dramas, and the financial success of the The Butler and The Best Man Holiday. I mean, my favorite thing this year is simply the range of subjects and genres that so many people of color have made. That’s the most exciting thing, and the fact that the movies are performing. It really is quite an interesting time and hopefully that makes it a little bit easier for everyone.