When she was young, Kasi Lemmons ritually attended Langston Hughes' Black Nativity, a gospel version of the Christmas story, every December at the Tremont Temple overlooking Boston Common. She recalls, "It was my Nutcracker Suite."
"I remember the overwhelmed but joyous feeling it gave me," says the actress/director, now 52, mother of two by actor Vondie-Curtis Hall. "The music, the vivid colors, the pageantry - so soul-stirring. It put me in the holiday mood."
A few years back, the filmmaker of Eve's Bayou and Talk to Me met with producers about potential projects. "When one asked, 'How do you feel about Black Nativity?,' my eyes lit up." It was a sign. She accepted the offer to update Black Nativity for the screen; it opened Nov. 27.
Lemmons' heartfelt parable stars Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as a Harlem pastor and his wife. They are estranged from their daughter Naima (Jennifer Hudson) and unknown to their grandson Langston (Jacob Latimore). When daughter and grandson are evicted from their Baltimore apartment, Naima sends Langston to New York to spend Christmas in the care of his grandparents. Once the scene shifts to the church, the movie audience is one with the parishioners, uplifted by joyous song.
The church long has been the seedbed of African American social activism and political leadership, one among many reasons Lemmons committed to the project.
"Langston Hughes was secular and had a complicated relationship with the church," she says of the poet, novelist, and playwright. "But he was interested in the role the church played. He was able to celebrate the black church and what it means to people."
The cultural component was important to Lemmons, as were the political and religious elements in Hughes' pageant that made it adaptable to both secular and religious music.
Lemmons' movie incorporates such traditional songs as "Motherless Child" and modern classics, including Stevie Wonder's "As." Many of the rest, most notably "Test of Faith," a soaring inspirational delivered by Jennifer Hudson, were written for the film.
As Lemmons tells it, "I had written the script, had an idea of where the musical cues were, and had constructed the bones of a song or two. I really tossed and turned and paced the floor." She turned to Raphael Saadiq, the songwriter and music producer, who came aboard as the film's musical guru and wrote "Test of Faith" and a few other songs.
Since Eve's Bayou, the directorial debut of the actress-turned-filmmaker, Lemmons' constant theme is the tangled web of family. There's the family of origin in Bayou, the talk-radio family in the underrated Talk to Me, and the parish and biological families in Nativity.
"Ummm," she considers after a pregnant pause. "Aren't families interesting and complicated? Aren't they the microcosm of all dramatic situations?"
She pauses again, then notes that while she was writing the second draft of Black Nativity, her beloved sister Cherie, a doctor and mother of two, died of breast cancer. Lemmons and her husband are now caring for her sister's children.
"I feel like a lost a twin," Lemmons says. While she was writing the screenplay of mending and blending families, she was working through her grief and blending her own family.
Lemmons is delighted her movie is among the diverse black-themed films of 2013, films ranging from Lee Daniels' The Butler to Fruitvale Station to The Best Man Holiday.
"I hope that this is a trend," she says. "I think we measure success not by the box office returns, but by the full spectrum of cinema. This is a big year."
Now showing in area theaters