Artists can spend years, sometimes their entire careers, attempting the formidable task of following up on debut movies or albums that wind up being transcendent, generation-defining classics.
John Singleton, for example, spent the balance of the 1990s trying to recreate the cinematic magic of his directorial debut Boyz N the Hood, while Nas has yet to recapture that blinding brilliance of his own immortal debut, Illmatic.
Actor-turned-director and screenwriter Kasi Lemmons also had to experience that when she wrote and directed the venerated Eve’s Bayou starring Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett, Megan Good and others. She also directed the period piece, Talk to Me, starring Don Cheadle that won wide acclaim and awards.
Speaking of Nasir “Nas” Jones, the regal rapper stars in this film fearing a constellation of A-list stars about a destitute mother (Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore who was nearly devoured by the streets of Baltimore and sent her precocious and rebellious son to New York.
Speaking from the BronzeLens Film Festival in Atlanta, Kasi Lemmons, a Boston native who had seen the Langston Hughes stage play many times, easily summoned the creative spark to write and direct the movie adaptation. She explains that she wanted to reconstruct or remodel Hughes’ original work that would speak to contemporary situations, including the Great Recession of a few years ago and interweave interfamilial strife and a boy’s turbulent coming of age into the theme.
“Families are complicated. I wanted to write a family drama that was rooted in real problems, broken families and single mothers, and yet make it a message of hope and redemption. And, you know, I hope that it’s inspiring,” said Lemmons who is doubles as a professor in the graduate film school at New York University.
Lemmons alerts Broadway and stage play connoisseurs that the movie is a liberal adaptation of the stage incarnation of Black Nativity.
“Very, very liberal. I can’t even say it was loosely based on the stage play Black Nativity. It is about a group of people putting on a production of Black Nativity. It’s a whole other story that Black Nativity fits into,” said Lemmons, who also directed the critically-acclaimed Talk to Me starring Don Cheadle. “But I wove it in so that it’s informed of Black Nativity. You know these street kids that Langston (Hughes) meets in Harlem — a young, homeless, pregnant girl.”
Lemmons can claim victory because she got all of the first choices she desired to play in this film, including Academy Award winners Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson, Academy Award-nominee Angela Bassett and multi-Grammy winners Mary J. Blige and Nas.
“Getting them all together was a huge challenge. But I pretty much got my first choices. Forest (Whitaker) wasn’t at first, because it didn’t look like he was going to be available. Angela (Bassett) was my first choice. Jennifer, I wrote the part for her. Tyrese (Gibson) — I wrote that part for him also.
“Mary J. Blige was just a gift and she wanted to do it. And Nas, I told him ‘I just want you in the movie. I’ll write something for you.'”
In addition to the stellar performances in the film, the biggest surprise will be the newcomer, Jacob Lattimore, whom Lemmons refers to as an incandescent light who envelops the screen and matches the presence of his elder, more celebrated costars.
“Jacob is just this amazing kid. I knew that this movie rested on the shoulders of this 15-year-old kid. And he was the first actor I audition. I knew as soon as he walked into my house and I read him, I was like this is an extraordinary young man. I love this kid.”
Piece of advice for aspiring and up-and-coming actors, screenwriters and/or directors:
The basic thing is perseverance. You win if you’re the last man standing. When I did Eve’s Bayou, I took about 100 meetings. I heard no so many times and you have to be able to keep going and believe in yourself and know you will hook up with the right person at the right time.
Luck is a love child of readiness and opportunity. You have to be ready when the door cracks open — and completely ready. I’ve always been ready.