Lime interview - Screen
A rousing and heart-warming story, BLACK NATIVITY has a stellar ensemble cast of consummately talented musicians and award-winning actors.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons, Jennifer Hudson stars as Naima, a single mother who has not seen her parents for years. Angela Basset delivers a wonderful performance as Aretha Cobbs, married to the rather strict Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker). They are the pillars of their community in Harlem, yet they have no relationship with their daughter. There is a family secret that has kept them apart.
However when Naima is evicted from her Baltimore house, she reluctantly packs her teenage son Langston (Jacob Latimore) off to stay with her parents for Christmas. It’s tough for Langston settling in to life with grandparents he doesn’t know. He clashes with his forbidding grandfather (Whitaker), despite attempts by his loving grandmother (Bassett) to make him feel at home. Langston finds temptation on the streets of New York and longs to be reunited with his mother. Powerful and inspiring, Lemmons blends a relevant, contemporary tale with the nativity story in the musical that is based on the celebrated play of the same name by Langston Hughes. The acting is superb – and the music is spectacular: mixing R & B, soul and hip-hop. The film also stars Mary J. Blige.
Angela Bassett began her career on stage, after graduating from Yale University. An accomplished stage actress, working on and off Broadway, she appeared in several television shows, such as THE COSBY SHOW, before her first film role in BOYZ N THE HOOD (1991), which was followed by her highly praised portrayal of Betty Shabazz in MALCOLM X. Bassett was outstanding as Tina Turner in WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, for which she earned a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Her many award-winning films include WAITING TO EXHALE, CONTACT, HOW STELLA GOT HER GROOVE BACK, MUSIC OF THE HEART and THE SCORE.
This year Bassett starred in OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN. She will reprise her role in the upcoming sequel LONDON HAS FALLEN. Other upcoming projects include SURVIVOR and WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. She is currently appearing in the TV series AMERICAN HORROR STORY.
Bassett is married to actor and producer, Courtney B. Vance, they have seven-year-old twins. In 2009, Bassett and her husband co-wrote the book, FRIENDS: A LOVE STORY. Their production company is Bassett Vance Productions and their first venture, BOOK OF THE YEAR, will mark Bassett’s directorial debut.
Looking classically beautiful, her hair cut in a wavy bob; the actress was wearing a simple beige shift, when she sat down in Los Angeles to discuss her latest film, her family and her plans for Christmas.
When did you first get involved in BLACK NATIVITY?
“I remember a year before we even started filming, I sat on 65th street and Broadway in New York with Kasi (Lemmons) at Café Fiorello, eating and reading the script. I couldn’t see what it was going to be, honestly. I did not have the vision. So Kasi showed me a little something that she had filmed, and a little book of images and photographs that she had taken, which made it clear to me. Kasi and I have a history that goes back to when we were both actresses beating the pavement, and knowing her work, I wanted to be a part of her world and her vision. It didn’t start off as a major film. It was more like a little Indie. Very shortly thereafter, it became a major Hollywood film (laughs).”
What was the appeal of the film?
“Langston Hughes was one of Harlem’s greatest poet laureates during the Harlem Renaissance. I actually became an actress by falling in love with his work as a teenager. I loved director (Kasi Lemmons’) vision of the Christmas story and of the original play. There was also the appeal of the wonderful cast and all the folk who worked with us such as our choir and our dancers.”
You sing in the film too, was that daunting?
“I liked being scared of actually opening my mouth and singing. My voice is not known for that, so it was something new. One of my songs is with the incomparable Jennifer Hudson. I have a duet with Jennifer! But as an artist, to be afraid, and not feel I can do this my sleep or I can do this standing on my head (laughs) is intriguing and inviting.”
What is the major theme of the film would you say?
“It’s a movie about family and unconditional love; it’s about getting over past mistakes, getting over pride and righteous indignation, in order to see and accept each other. It shows that love is the greatest option. As someone who has a love for people and for children and who’s a Christian herself, I loved it and I think it is important to be able to tell this story about relationships, love, redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness, first and foremost. This is one movie I can let my kids see. I think they will enjoy it.”
Can you talk about the couple you and Forest play?
“I play Aretha Cobbs, First Lady of the Church. My husband (Forest Whitaker) and I have been together for thirty years, and we have one daughter (Jennifer Hudson) and a grandson (Jacob Latimore), who we’re meeting for the first time. I was thrilled to work with Forest, whom I absolutely adore. He’s just so special in so many ways and unique among actors, among human beings, and among men Forest and I have a long, rich and wonderful history. We have always been there for each other. I think our great respect and admiration for each other helped is to play this couple. It is an unspoken connection that really aided us in this relationship.”
When did you realize you had a gift for performing?
“I began to sense it when I was around fifteen, and I discovered Langston Hughes. The way he wrote showed the way I felt, and I needed a way of expressing myself. I fell in love with acting. I found that acting was a wonderful means of expressing myself as a shy girl growing up in Florida. Like most girls, I wrote poetry, but sometimes it was difficult for me to express myself. I got a lot of positive affirmation when I would perform. And I felt empowered by the response that I would see in the audience. It would scare me at first; I was hyperventilating, but then when I would go out there on stage, I felt invincible. It was just the beginning of, ‘hmm, maybe there’s something here. Something I could do.’ I definitely remember that.”
Are we seeing a change in the way black people are represented in Hollywood? There are some great films this year with African American themes: this one, 12 YEARS A SLAVE from director Steve McQueen and THE BUTLER directed by Lee Daniels?
“Well maybe there will be a little bit, having a variety of roles available, but it’s always such a weird conversation. Are there any more films with people who look like you? When we’re playing characters, we’re just playing human beings, so to be boxed or limited is weird, but it’s good that these films are coming out. When there is good work and varied work, that’s good and if this is a trend, may it continue.”
You have starred in some wonderful classic movies such as WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT Is acting still as fulfilling for you as it always has been?
“I guess I have been blessed to play some good roles. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. I keep striving, trying to find new and great women to portray. There are some highlights that have touched people and they were well drawn, well written and well performed. I’m happy people are still enjoying them today.”
BLACK NATIVITY has a strong spiritual theme. How influential was the church and religion for you as a child?
“Well my mother was a single parent, and her grandfather was a preacher. Now her dad took another route, but my father’s father was also a preacher in North Carolina, and so was my great-grandfather, in Florida. I grew up in Florida with him as part of our extended family. So church was where we were every Sunday and every Wednesday night for choir rehearsal. Religion played a great role, because of the struggles of life. It just helped us to feel that there was a bigger purpose, and that certain circumstances don’t mean the end, that there’s a greater purpose to our lives.”
Is religion still important to you?
“Yes and I would’ve been in church today, but oh well I am here talking to you! (laughs) So Courtney took the kids to church. There is ease and comfort, [in religion], because there is so much in life that’s just hard to understand. I trust that there is a God, who does have a plan and has a purpose and knows far more than I do.”
BLACK NATIVITY is a wonderful Christmas film. What are your Christmas traditions?
“I love getting a tree on Christmas Eve and then decorating it. It always feels like a risk with all the ornaments. (laughs) We beg, ‘please let it stay up.’ Then, in our house, it must come down before New Year’s Day. I also love going to Florida for Christmas, where it is warm. I grew up in Florida, so for me Christmas means it’s 85 degrees. Being cold is strange to me.”
What do you cook?
“I’m not a big cook, but I can certainly put food in a bowl and make it look like I came up with it (laughs). It’s just important to be home, especially since I spend time away working and filming. It’s sometimes just the simple things that mean a lot, like enjoying quiet time at home with family.”
Do you have a favourite Christmas gift?
“One year as a kid I just really, really wanted an acoustic guitar, and my auntie in North Carolina sent me one, and I was very happy about that. I took it around, everywhere—to college, to New York, and to California. But then there was the big Northridge earthquake in LA (1994). It was a really bad one that shook everything up, and my guitar splintered everywhere. That’s when I lost it.”
You have young children and you and your husband are so successful. How do you instil the values that you were raised with? It must be hard not to spoil them?
“I definitely try and keep a lid on materialism. I’ve been so blessed, and it’s so easy to give them so much, but I just try to keep a lid on that. This is the time of the year for reflection. The kids maybe get two or three things that they really want for Christmas. But that’s all they ask for; they really don’t want that much, which is very unlike me when I was young (laughs).”
Q: You have achieved so much with awards and accolades. Does that mean you can relax a little now?
“I would never feel that. You’re always wanting and desiring and reaching, and I hope that’s true for everyone. It’s about growing. When someone says ‘oh there’s talk about Oscars’, it’s important not to concern yourself with yourself with something like that. The work is the reward and award, and it is important to remember that, as opposed to getting side tracked and confused and losing what was your first love and passion. Sometimes, you’re offered something, and if you start by asking about the money, it gets warped. You should read the script and wonder, ‘will this challenge me? Can I add to this? What is the greater story that it’s trying to tell?’”
Is acting still as fulfilling as it always was for you?
“Performing is still a first love for me. I never want to take it for granted and I have never been one to just take a role for money’s sake. That’s not the best reason to do something. For me, BLACK NATIVITY is about love and forgiveness; that was the most important factor. It was also about working with the individuals involved and having the experience that we had, as opposed to wondering if we will receive awards. Those are things you can’t control. There’s so much that’s not under your control. You just have to concentrate on what’s most important.”
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