‘Black Nativity’ movie starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker has Carolina connection

Black Nativity movie poster“Black Nativity,” a holiday movie opening Nov. 27 in theaters nationwide, is based on a Langston Hughes gospel libretto. It may be set in Harlem, but it has a strong Carolina connection.

The Fox Searchlight film’s superstar lineup includes Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige and newcomer Jacob Latimore. It opens locally in Durham at The Streets at Southpoint and Carmike Wynnsong theaters.

Joy Goodwin, the film’s executive producer, has been a lecturer in creative writing and communication studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC-Chapel Hill since last fall. She also teaches at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Her husband, Ethan Basch, is a jazz musician and a faculty member at UNC ‘s Lineberger Comprehensive Care Center.

At UNC, Goodwin is teaching “Introduction to Creative Nonfiction” and “Writing the Profile” this fall and “Introduction to Screen Adaptation” in the spring.

Goodwin said she saw an off-Broadway production of “Black Nativity” in 2007, decided to option the rights to the material and began looking for a director and writer to help turn the play into a movie.  Working with writer/director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Talk to Me”), they made a successful pitch to Fox Searchlight, which agreed to make the movie.

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Joy Goodwin, a lecturer in creative writing and communication studies, is the film’s executive producer.

The film centers around Langston (Latimore), a street-wise teen from Baltimore raised by a single mother (Hudson), who travels to Harlem to spend Christmas with his estranged relatives, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (played by Whitaker and Bassett).

“Black Nativity” was written by Hughes in 1961 as sort of a large-scale Christmas pageant. It’s been performed by groups across the country for many years, Goodwin said.

“It’s a real blending of theater and community and music, and of course the text has a profound meaning for audiences,” she said. “For many of the actors in the film, who grew up performing gospel music or the play itself, it was a chance for them to reconnect.”

Goodwin, a nonfiction writer, screenwriter and producer, has been active in developing independent films for more than a decade. She has taken half a dozen films to the Sundance Film Festival, most recently serving as co-producer for Cherien Dabis’ “May in the Summer,” which opened the 2013 festival. She was an Emmy-winning television producer for ABC, A&E, The History Channel and ESPN. She has also written about theater and dance for The New York Times and The New Yorker.

Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore from "Black Nativity" (photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore from “Black Nativity” (photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight)

“Black Nativity” is Goodwin’s first musical. She was at the premiere the week of Nov. 18 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, and she and director Lemmons screened the film at the School of the Arts in Winston-Salem on Nov. 15.

Goodwin hopes the film, which “really is a universal story,” will make its way permanently into fans’ holiday movie and music collections, and that it will become a family tradition for years after its theatrical debut.

She said she is interested in making films in North Carolina. Her next project is a screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust,” with Debra Granik (“Winter’s Bone”) directing.

Goodwin said she is enjoying teaching students at UNC, whom she calls “brave and perceptive.” It’s been a fun journey as they discover new things together, she added.

“For this generation, the virtual world is so compelling,” Goodwin said. “But I’m inspired by seeing young people going out and talking to people in the physical world, listening and observing and trying to shape those stories into small works of art.”

“It’s been my goal in my teaching and my creative work to broaden the scope of the stories that get published or produced, and to urge people not to give up on the dream of telling stories outside the margins, however difficult it may seem.”

Visit the film web site for trailer and information about the film.

[ Story by Kim Weaver Spurr '88 ]