For some actors, getting involved in a film involves a great deal of calculation about its prospects for commercial success. For some actors, committing to a major part in an all-African American Christmas musical might not seem like such a great bet. But in the case of Kasi Lemmons’ new film Black Nativity (based on the Langston Hughes play), for Angela Bassett, it was kind of a no-brainer.
“The source writer, Langston Hughes, that’s why I became an actress,” the screen legend says, “falling in love with his work as a teenager. And with Kasi, we were actresses in New York together, you know, hitting the street in commercials and auditions. There was something special about her, even then. Years later, to be able to work with her in this capacity and be able to support her was great. To work with Forest Whitaker, whom I absolutely adore, who’s just so special in so many ways and unique among actors, among human beings, among men. To work with these young talents who I’ve never worked with, whether it’s Jacob or Tyrese, or all the vocal work of our choir and our dancers. To be scared of the idea of actually opening your mouth and singing your voice. That’s going to be something new and, as an artist, to be afraid… not like ‘I can do this in my sleep, I can do this standing on my head,’ but… ‘I’m not even sure. I might fall on my face.’ For actors, that’s intriguing and inviting.”
Ah yes. The movie musical. It’s been the Waterloo of many a respected actor. How did Bassett find the courage to take it on? “I don’t know, I just remember going back,” she recalls, “maybe a year before we even started filming. I was just sitting on Sixty-Fifth Street and Broadway with Kasi, at Fiorello’s, eating. Reading it, I couldn’t see what it was going to be. Honestly. I didn’t have the vision. I read the script and I really couldn’t see it. So, sitting down with Kasi she showed me just a little something that she had filmed. A little book of images and photographs that she had taken. And that made it clearer to me. Because when you’re reading, there are lines, there’s a song—I really couldn’t see the whole of the picture. I couldn’t make sense of it. But she makes perfect sense, to me—as a story teller, as a writer, as a director, as a friend. So it was a faith walk. They say the definition of faith is the assurance of things you can’t see. Well I couldn’t see it. But I had faith in her and her vision and her ability.”
Then again, Bassett has never been one to make the calculated career moves. “For me, it ain’t all about me,” she says pointedly. “Certain things are not so important. There’s a standard to be excellent, to appreciate others, especially in this business. It’s about growing. The work is the reward and the award, as opposed to getting side-tracked and confused. You lose what was your first love and what was your passion if you start going after other things, you know?
“Sometimes you’re offered something,” she continues, “if you start going after things, someone will say ‘Oh, we want to offer you such and such role,’ and your first question is ‘Well, how much they paying,’ you know? Then it gets kind of warped. As opposed to ‘Let me read the script. Will this challenge me? Can I add to this? What is the greater story that it’s trying to tell?’ This film was about love and forgiveness. That was the most important factor. And working with the individuals and having the experience that we had. As opposed to ‘Do you think there will be an award?’ Those things aren’t under your control.”
That focus extended, too, to Bassett’s approach to her character, a pastor’s wife who comes into a child’s life just at the right moment, for him and for her. “For me,” she says, “it was always thinking about this woman and what she’s been through and what she’s sacrificed and what she’s lost. The pain of that. Who would she be if it was so painful that she left him? But how it was almost like he’s a life raft for her. And yet, they are pillars of society to a church of hurting folk. You know? The façade of perfection, but this pain. They are together, clinging to one another. Just thinking about it philosophically or whatever it might be. It looks one way, but it’s something else in reality. Then having children. To have lost a child. Then to see this child. Fifteen years. Really trying to put yourself in this predicament. And not recreating. We’ve already made this mistake so let’s not make this mistake again with him. This is our chance. Our chance. To be made half whole again.”
The overarching themes of the film were especially meaningful to Bassett. “As someone who has a heart for people and for children,” she says, “who is a Christian herself, to be able to tell this story about relationship and love and redemption and reconciliation and… there you go. Forgiveness, first and foremost, which is a balm. Just healing. I’m still learning about that. I’m still learning about that. I believe in it. I trust in it. But I think human nature makes it so difficult. Pride makes it so difficult to say, ‘I’m sorry, I love you, I miss you,’ because you don’t want to be hurt if you’ve been hurt before. “
She pauses, and gets a bit of a faraway look. “I know it’s the best way to go,” she says, nodding. “Forgiveness. But it seems difficult. If you’re able to get over it, it really wasn’t hard at all. It’s what you need most of all.”