The Black Nativity Lights Up the Screen with Stars and Spirit

The Black Nativity Lights Up the Screen with Stars and Spirit

“There’s fire in the east, there’s fire in the west, there’s fire among the Methodists.

Satan’s mad and I’m so glad he missed the soul he thought he had. This is the year of jubilee,

the Lord hath come to set us free.”

–Langston Hughes, Black Nativity

Black Nativity, the new film adaptation of Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, is not a literal take on the play’s straightforward gospel narrative. Instead it is a modern retelling that Bishop T.D. Jakes (one of the film’s producers) told UrbanFaith is as much about “hope for struggling families” as it is about bringing the Hughes’ classic to the big screen. “It grapples with the fact that families are hard to hold together and you don’t always do it right,” said Jakes. Even so, when asked why he chose to produce a Langston Hughes project, Jakes said his late mother would “get out of the grave and get him” if he didn’t, because in her hometown of Tuskegee, Alabama, Hughes was afforded the kind of reverence others give to William Shakespeare.

“Rereading the play, I realized that I had to build a story for it to exist in,” said writer/director Kasi Lemmons. She wanted to create a timeless, yet modern film about the “small miracle of forgiveness” — how “when you open your heart, the planets align and it allows God to come through,” she said.

Hughes struggled with issues of faith and had a “complicated” relationship with the church, said Lemmons. “He was very interested, anthropologically and historically, in what the church is for—speaking as African Americans—for our community and what it’s done historically.”

Likewise, faith is a complicated issue for her. “Complicated things were going on in my life, and so it’s infused with a lot of wondering — how do I know what I believe? It was more than a straight-ahead look at it,” she said.

That, along with the vibrant Raphael Saadiq score and the actors’ stellar performances, is what makes Black Nativity compelling. One of the film’s great successes is its full, nuanced portrait of humanity. There are no clear villains or protagonists, just family members struggling to make their way, living with the consequences of their choices, and trying to make things right with themselves, with God, and with each other.

Black Nativity stars Forest Whitaker and Jacob Latimore (Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight)

The Reverend Cornell Cobbs, for example, played by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, exhibits deep reverence for black history and culture, but is paying the price for his misguided attempt to keep his daughter from throwing her life away on the wrong guy.

“He’s great in the pulpit, but it doesn’t make him a great dad,” said Jakes. “I see that every day. The notion that because you’re good at one thing means your good at everything is erroneous. He’s growing as a person and as a father.”

Asked whether he had anything to do with this pastoral portrayal, Jakes said Lemmons wrote a realistic depiction of preachers and the church, one without the “toxicity” or disrespect often found in film. “Much of what I see out here now has some venom in it for the church. It’s in the underbelly of the writing … and you can’t wash it out of the script. As we began to send in notes about the script, we weren’t trying to sanitize a pig,” said Jakes.

As the teenage boy who draws the family back together, Jacob Latimore’s character Langston is sent to stay with his grandparents over the Christmas holiday while his mother tries to figure out a solution to their financial problems. He doesn’t understand their estrangement from his struggling mother and challenges his grandfather, the pastor, about their beautiful Harlem home. “You got this tight crib… What kind of parents are you?” he says. “We’re the broken-hearted kind,” the pastor answers, with all the brilliant pathos one would expect to be infused into words spoken by an actor of Whitaker’s caliber.

The film’s stars were drawn to the project for many of the same reasons its producer and writer/director were.

Whitaker comes from a family of Southern Baptist preachers, but said the universal themes of love and forgiveness resonated with him. In his work, he strives for connection – connection with his characters and their connections with others. “That’s the driving force of all of my work. Now, I may not be able to accomplish it as completely in my life as I would like. I try. But, certainly in my work, the quest, the amount of dedication that I move towards, is in a spiritual realm. It is guided completely by my understanding of connection and my understanding of the divine,” said Whitaker.

“Forgiveness is everything, because people make mistakes. In the movie, the family made a mistake and the child needed to have his family,” said Mary J. Blige, who plays Langston’s platinum-haired guardian angel. Asked about her own journey with forgiveness, Blige said becoming a Christian was transformative. “Understanding what it is, reading the word, and understanding how important forgiveness is for you—not for someone else and not for God—for you, it changed my life,” she said.

Jennifer Hudson, who plays the reverend’s daughter Naima, grew up in church and is raising her son there too, she said. She was drawn to the film by its spiritual and family themes. “I’m a holiday fanatic, a family fanatic, and I grew up in church. All of those things are what drew me to the role. I feel as though we’re missing those things today. Where are those family films that you can sit on the couch together or go to the movies and see together?” said Hudson.

Several of the stars, including Blige and Hudson, knew little of Langston Hughes before signing on to the project. Angela Bassett, on the other hand, said reading his work as a teenager is what made her want to be an actor.

At the press junket UrbanFaith attended in Los Angeles, there was much talk about whether black films are a trend this year and what it means if they are. “It’s such a weird little conversation. There are more films with people that look like you,” said Angela Bassett, who plays the pastor’s wife, Aretha Cobbs. “When we’re playing characters, we’re just playing human beings. So, to be boxed or limited … it’s just odd. It’s good work, the films that are out, it’s good work and varied work and that’s good. If it’s a trend, may it continue until it’s not a trend and it just is.”

“The black community has fought for human rights and personal rights. It translates itself to other communities and it continues to move forward,” said Whitaker. “So it’s an indicator that a broader spectrum, as Angela said, is about to open… It’s a progression of healing that has to occur and it’s actively happening. We’re all seeing it.”

Yes, we’re all seeing it and, like this film, it’s good.

A Washington D.C. audience heartily and vocally embraced the film last week. A group of middle-aged women told UrbanFaith afterwards that they loved it, but a young journalist said he had trouble figuring out what was going on with a dream sequence and adjusting to characters breaking into song amidst the dialogue. He also said he sometimes felt like he was in church. Back in LA, Hudson said the film set felt like church to her at times too.

If people associate their experience of this film with church – where they’re challenged and/or bored, uplifted and/or embarrassed, so be it. “Talking about religion may kill your faith,” Hughes wrote in his play. “People who really believe don’t worry about it—because the Lord is going to make a way.”

Orlando Student Has One Week to Change Her Hair or Be Expelled

Orlando Student Has One Week to Change Her Hair or Be Expelled

Yesterday morning news broke in Orlando about Vanessa VanDyke, a 12-year-old student at Faith Christian Academy who is in danger of being expelled because of her hair. VanDyke has a head full of natural hair that she has worn in a large blown-out ‘fro style for the last year, but recently, because she complained of children teasing and bullying her, her hair has become a problem. Like many private schools, FCA has a fairly stringent dress code policy that includes restrictions on hair. According to the policy, “Hair must be a natural color and must not be a distraction to include but not be limited to: mohawks, shaved designs, rat tails, etc.” VanDyke’s hair is a distraction by way of its size and shape and the school administration is threatening to expel her if she doesn’t cut and shape her hair. The 12-year-old now has one week to decide whether to cut her hair of risk expulsion from the school. So who should change in this situation, FCA or VanDyke? Or is there a fair compromise that can be reached?

As an institution established on Christian principles Faith Christian Academy has a particular responsibility to encourage their students toward faithful behavior which includes embracing diversity. In this day and age diversity goes beyond the color of someone’s skin and reaches down to the particular cultural practices of the person, which, as we have witnessed in the last few years, includes the different hairstyles that evolve from the culture. Significant to this understanding is teaching young boys and girls that most black children don’t come into this world with straight hair and their hair, in its natural state, ranges from being straight to being tightly curled. Unfortunately all some children know is the so-called normativity of straight hair without knowing that there is usually a high price that little black girls pay to get that straight hair like her white female counterparts. The decision of a young black girl to wear her hair in its natural state isn’t one that should be held against her, not by a playground bullies or school administration. But in order for this to become the new normative—sad to say this—it must be taught to children at an early age that the world around them isn’t going to be full of people with straight hair. Maybe teachers should take a page from Jane Elliot’s Blue Eye/Brown Eye exercise except instead of dividing the classes into a blue eyed, black eyed group they are separated into Straight Hair/Natural Black Hair groups to allow children to experience what it feels like when someone bases their discrimination and disdain for you on external characteristics. But beyond trying to teach bullies a lesson through social experiments, the children need to be taught that making fun of a little black girl because of her hair is to make fun of the wondrous way in which God created her. This should be Faith Christian Academy’s concern, that the children who are making fun of and bullying VanDyke are making fun of God’s design. The school’s handling of this situation positions them as bullies on a number of counts–according to their bullying policy:

 “Bullying can be direct or indirect, blatant or subtle, and it involves an imbalance of power, repeated actions, and intentional behavior.

Bullying is cutting someone off from essential relationships.

Bullying includes isolating the victim by making them feel rejected by his/her community.”

There is an imbalance of power at play with FCA currently threatening VanDyke with expulsion unless she cuts and shapes her hair–they have the upper hand and she has nothing to do but be subordinate. FCA is cutting VanDyke off from the essential relationships with friends she’s had she since starting at FCA in third grade. FCA is isolating her by threatening expulsion and making her feel rejected by both the school administration and students all because of her hair. It seems clear that the school is not practicing what it preaches to its student about the “Golden Rule,” “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Because surely if the school was practicing what it preaches and really being concerned about “avoiding practices which cause the loss of sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the world and which have an adverse effect on the physical, mental, and spiritual well being of Christian students” VanDyke could not and should not be moved. FCA has made Vanessa VanDyke’s hair a distraction and now they are trying to force her to change it—read conform her hair to their standards. But maybe VanDyke has a particular responsibility in this situation.

Do we protest too much when a situation such as this could be remedied with a ponytail, a bun, a French braid, etc? VanDyke’s hair is beautiful and she should be free to wear it as she pleases, but in exercising freedom to wear her hair as she pleases, is she still accountable to others? Yes, the other kids making fun of her need to be sat down and taught a lesson. And she shouldn’t be penalized by the administration for the way she way she wears her hair. But is there some particular course of action she must take beyond fighting to wear her hair as she pleases? The one thing that I can’t shake is the possible vanity of this situation. What does it mean to fight for the right to wear your hair is big as you please at the expense of other things? Maybe there are other ways that her hair could be worn. I know that many would argue that this is conceding to the politics of respectability, but we should question what it is we do with the freedom of expression we have. In this case, it is one little girl’s freedom to wear her hair as she pleases but should that trump everything else? FCA bears the brunt of this situation and the school administration must understand what it means to categorize a child’s hair as a distraction over say bullying, but I don’t want to miss an opportunity to discuss what a fight for individual freedom of expression costs and whether that cost is always worth it.

Not many people outside of the diaspora understand how connected black people are to their hair, even when we’d rather not be connected to it. We struggle with our hair but for many—present company included—the moment we go natural we discover what a great gift God has given us in this hair. One head of natural hair presents many possibilities for a little black girl or an adult black woman. It can be worn in a big blown-out ‘fro, a teeny-weeny ‘fro, a twist out, a braid out, in braids or in twists, wavy, or pressed straight. That isn’t even a comprehensive list of the possibilities that reveal themselves for natural girls and women. Suffice to say that to go natural is to be faithful stewards of what God has given us as God has given it to us. But I’m also fearful of what it means when that hair begins to eclipse other parts of our lives. When we become obsessed about our hair to the detriment of other parts of our lives and we are willing to sacrifice things for it. VanDyke’s hair is glorious but at what point does the fight for it become vainglorious? To be clear (again), FCA is losing this battle because all eyes are on them as the umpteenth school to use a child’s hair as grounds from suspension or expulsion. But as we continue to see more and more cases of children being sent home for wearing their natural hair in a particular way, what can we do about it? What is the executive decision that parents must make about their children’s hair? How do we negotiate full self-expression in the midst of the dominant culture that remains disinterested in it, without sacrificing things that are significant—in VanDyke’s case it is access to quality education at a private institution? As you can see, there is no simple answer to this. VanDyke will be damned if she does change her hair because many will think she sold out and she will be damned if she doesn’t change it because she might be expelled. To conclude this and say we must learn to pick our battles may show a sign of defeat, but maybe, just maybe, we have to sacrifice some things for a short time just to get where we need to be. For FCA this means stepping off of their “hair as a distraction” soapbox in order to allow a little girl to continue to grow and thrive and for VanDyke it may be that every now and then, she pulls that beautiful hair back into a still beautiful bun or ponytail or alternatively beautiful style.

But what do you think? Doth the school protest too much about her hair or doth she protest too much about her hair? This is what her and her family will be deliberating on this Thanksgiving. We give thanks for hair, but do we give up things for it too? Weigh in with your thoughts.