The new movie, BLACK NATIVITY, a musical interpretation of playwright Langston Hughes’ 1960s classic tale of Jesus’ birth–performed in holiday pageants across the country for decades–gets a fresh contemporary veneer.
FOX Searchlight’s big screen version opening November 27th is a stylized account of a family in turmoil, in the discerning hands of filmmaker Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk To Me), a timely holiday offering centered on faith and forgiveness.
The story touches and warms the heart; the music is extraordinary and layers this 90-minute portrayal poised to be a sweet sentimental classic for years to come.
Reaching into familiar reflections of inner city life, Naema (Jennifer Hudson), struggling as a single mother succumbs. Estranged from her well-to-do father and mother, the right reverend Cobbs and his devoted wife Aretha (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), Naema is out of options.
The stress of endless strain dictates that she should send her son to live with her parents. An eviction forces her to deal with the reality of no place else to go.
Naema has never forgiven her parents for a previous family conflict; they reciprocated.
Much to be thankful for, the talented cast is a bounty, among them: Oscar winners Whitaker (King of Scotland, The Butler), Hudson (Dreamgirls, Winnie Mandela), Oscar nominee Bassett (What’s Love Got To Do With It, Malcolm X), joined by Vondie Curtiss-Hall (Die Hard), R&B empress Mary J. Blige, actor and soulful crooner Tyrese Gibson (Baby Boy, Fast & Furious franchise),recording artists Nas and Luke James, plus the outstanding Jacob Latimore as young Langston, Naema’s teenage son.
Blige (I Can Do Bad All By Myself and executive producer of Lifetime TV’s Betty and Coretta) has a particularly unique role in BLACK NATIVITY –that of a guardian angel– one not far from the responsibilities the multi-platinum, multi-Grammy, two-time Golden Globe winning artist has stepped in to fill for others.
We sat down in Los Angeles at the Regent Beverly Wilshire Hotel to discuss her life and the essence of forgiveness.
Sandra Varner/Talk2SV: It is true that you have tremendous impact upon countless by virtue of sharing your life in your music. So much so, the honestly has propelled you to become a beloved commercial brand. How do you view Mary J. Blige, the brand, your qualitative and quantitative impact?
MJB: The brand is a movement; one that started to help people without even knowing it was helping because at the same time ‘she’ was helping herself. The movement is love, the movement is about self-empowerment, building up your confidence and your self-esteem within yourself, it’s about spirituality, and it’s about religion, because that’s the question of the day. So it’s a way of life, a style of life, how we live, and how we carry ourselves.
Talk2SV: Some interviews ago, I asked how could you work in those five inch heels and you said, “You know, I just do it.” Motivated by you, I went out and bought a pair or two. Truth be told, I have not worn them because I can’t (laughter). I call them my Mary J. Blige shoes because they remind me of you. Today, I’m wearing your fragrance, My Life; your influence continues.
MJB: I smell it. I didn’t want to ask. It smells so good. I’ve got another one (fragrance) coming.
Talk2SV: I think it’s delightful that you use your life to impact people from all walks of life, age notwithstanding– it doesn’t matter, it’s the Mary J brand and it’s a big, big image. Do you take full responsibility for it?
MJB: I do. I take full responsibility because it’s everything I’ve worked for, it’s my work.
Talk2SV: Your role in this film is that of an angel who has a significant impact. The look of the character had a noticeable glow replete with platinum fro. I didn’t think the character was a stretch from how you are viewed in real life. There are emotional moments in the film; did it make you cry at all?
MJB: I won’t say it made me cry, it just kind of gave me the chills, a little bit.
Talk2SV: I believe that angels walk among us. I think for anyone to inhabit that space and to own it takes a lot of courage.
MJB: Yeah it does, to be a vessel it takes a lot of courage. Everything is not always glowing. You have to get through the hard stuff to be able to glow.
Talk2SV: When you sing and listen to yourself what do you hear?
MJB: Wow. Sometimes, if I go back to the My Life album (1994), I’ll hear everything I was going through and I’ll start to cry. When I go to the Share My World album (1997), I hear [that] I’m living everything I was singing through, every time for any song.
Talk2SV: When I listen to the Mary of fifteen years ago and I listen to the Mary of today I hear the woman, I hear the growth, I hear the success, I hear all of that…I’m curious about what you hear coming through your voice?
MJB: Right now, I hear hope, I hear joy, I hear perseverance, I hear victory, I hear triumph, I hear imperfections which I’ve learned to love. The fact that I love everything about me now, none of it bothers me. Back in the day when I used to listen to myself, I’d say, ‘oh, that’s terrible.’ Now, my thoughts are, ‘alright that’s a bad note, but who cares,’ we could fix that. So that’s what I’m hearing.
Talk2SV: Reality shows have become a big part of American life, whether you like them or not, scripted or in real time. Yours has been the unscripted reality show. Have you been approached to package yourself as a TV reality show?
MJB: Of course but I’m not going to do it.
Talk2SV: Why did you say no?
MJB: Because my life is too real. My life is my life; this is my life. I’m living it right in front of you so I’m not going to put it on TV to diminish and take the quality away from my life. I’m not going to sell it; I’m just ministering through my own walk.
My life means everything to me; my life is the most important gift that God could have given me and I have to take care of it: my body, my mind, my surroundings, my life.
Talk2SV: Are you shy?
MJB: I don’t know. I really don’t know. Maybe I’m still insecure in areas. I guess being insecure in some areas still causes you to be shy or it’s just something that we are; I don’t like to take on so much and I find myself having to really own up to my space in life. Yes I’m shy but I’m also Mary J Blige. And, we have to do what we have to do.
Talk2SV: That’s what I like about this movie in particular. It shows the imperfections in all of us; from the preacher in the pulpit to the people living on the street.
MJB: It’s a beautiful story. That’s exactly what life is about and forgiving. We’ve all messed up but we must do the best we can with what we have.
Talk2SV: When did these two words become easier for you to say? I’m sorry.
MJB: When I learned how to take responsibility for my part in everything and not blame or point the finger at anyone.
Talk2SV: Have you received all the apologies in life that you’ve expected or wanted?
MJB: No, not at all.
Talk2SV: Do you think you will ask for them?
MJB: No, I don’t need to. I know one day they’ll come around or they won’t, that’s just life.
Talk2SV: It was somewhat intimidating getting ready to have this conversation with you this time. When we speak, I have this feeling that I’m talking to someone who is so genuine; that she will see through anything I’d ask that wasn’t genuine. Does that make sense?
MJB: Makes a lot of sense… I don’t know everything but I know what I’m supposed to know.
Talk2SV: If you had grown up on the west coast or maybe up north, do you think you would be a different person than you are?
MJB: Totally. There’s a different way of living here in California. I think everyone is a little more laid back although there’s still a lot of aggression but they move differently. In New York, I think people move a little faster; the energy is different. Here, people are not really worried as much or they don’t appear to be as worried as much. On the east coast it’s always hustle and bustle, a real hard push, push, push energy, you’ve got to be strong. You can’t get caught in that traffic jam with all these people, getting bumped down; you have to get your way through. That’s just my take on it.
Talk2SV: Black Nativity is as an example of the challenge of city life especially for young people. As we grow older, it’s easy to forget what it’s like to be young; to make crazy decisions and not think things through or to pace yourself. What advice do you have for young people?
MJB: Well, you first show them an example of yourself. You weren’t all positive and decent as a teenager. Take it easy on yourself and believe in yourself, no matter how hard it gets. Don’t beat yourself up about everything. Please, try not to listen to all the negative things that people have to say about you. Who do you believe you are? That’s all that matters. Everything will be alright.
Talk2SV: What have you learned about being an actor?
MJB: Umm, just slow down and really get the words out. Do the work; put the work in for the character and you’ll see it back on the screen.
Talk2SV: What do you want this film to do for the people who come to see it? What do you want the Black Nativity experience to be?
MJB: I want it to touch their hearts; to open up their hearts and melt some of the ice, if there’s any. To go out and forgive someone that may have hurt them; to understand that everybody is a human being. It’s hard but we’ve got to let love rule this thing and fix everything. Forgiveness is the key. I’m just hoping it will touch hearts.