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Christmas musical 'Black Nativity' hits a new note on big screen

By Eric Kelsey

BEVERLY HILLS, California (Reuters) - While growing up in Massachusetts in the 1960s and 1970s, Kasi Lemmons' mother took her every year to see the Christmas musical "Black Nativity" in Boston.

Now, the 52-year-old director of 2007 drama "Talk to Me" is bringing poet Langston Hughes' musical about family redemption to the big screen on Wednesday in a present-day adaptation starring Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker.

"I wanted to write a story that could continue 'Black Nativity' that was a contemporary story, that was a very accessible story, that was something anyone could relate to," Lemmons said in an interview.

Hughes' 1961 gospel musical-drama retold the biblical story of the birth of Christ featuring black actors for a black audience. In Lemmons' adaptation, the director said she wanted to tackle a modern, broken family's struggles against the backdrop of New York's historically black Harlem neighborhood.

"Unfortunately, that is a reality," Lemmons said about the family drama which tells the story of the Cobb family's fractured relationship with runaway daughter Naima, portrayed by Hudson.

The film, distributed by Twenty-First Century Fox Inc's Fox Searchlight Pictures, begins in Baltimore with a destitute Naima, facing eviction and struggling to make ends meet. She sends her teenage son Langston, an overt nod to the poet, to New York to live with the middle-class grandparents he has never met.

Langston, played by Jacob Latimore, is reluctant to embrace his grandparents - Harlem church leader Reverend Cornell Cobb (Whitaker) and Aretha (Angela Bassett) - as he tries to get to the bottom of the family secret: Why did his mother run away?

"Watching this family being broken and torn apart and seeing a child suffer because of ... a mistake that his grandfather made with his daughter that caused her to react the way that she did, which basically ended up destroying their relationship which eventually affected her son," Hudson said.

HUGHES AND HARLEM

"Black Nativity," which culminates in a Christmas Eve nativity service at Cobb's Harlem church, is in part homage to Hughes and Harlem, Lemmons said.

"I have a tremendous love for Langston Hughes, a tremendous love for Harlem, the Harlem Renaissance and the artists of the Harlem Renaissance," the director said, adding that she now lives in the area of Harlem that Hughes had once called home.

The prolific poet, who also authored numerous novels, plays and newspaper columns before his death in 1967 at age 65, was a leader of the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, the African-American cultural movement steeped in racial consciousness.

Prime players of the Harlem Renaissance included intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois, political activist Marcus Garvey, writers Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson, as well as jazz pioneers Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie.

Lemmons concedes that she worries the neighborhood, north of Manhattan's Central Park, is gentrifying rapidly.

"I wanted to capture a little bit of Harlem and a little bit of history without it being like a history lesson," Lemmons said.

In June, a home in Harlem sold for a record $4 million, symbolizing the demand for real estate in the working-class neighborhood. Harlem, along with East Harlem, are Manhattan's poorest in terms of median household income at about $30,000 year in 2009, according to New York University's Furman Center.

"I think Harlem was a character in itself," Latimore added. "I think if it was any place else the film would've had a different touch - the history, the artistic side to Harlem, it was just very unique."

(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy)

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