‘Black Nativity’ film producer lives in Chapel Hill

They had a ‘dream cast’ for modern adaptation of Langston Hughes work
Dec. 04, 2013 @ 06:58 PM

“Black Nativity,” the film released in theaters nationwide last week, has an all-star cast and might be destined for holiday classic status.

Its executive producer, Joy Goodwin, lives in Chapel Hill. She has seen it four times already, from the premiere in Harlem to the AMC Southpoint 17 theater in Durham. “Black Nativity” is an adaptation of acclaimed African American poet Langston Hughes’ play, set in present-day Harlem and starring Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Tyrese Gibson and newcomer Jacob Latimore, with appearances by Mary J. Blige and Nas. “Black Nativity” is told through the eyes of Langston (Latimore), the teenage son of a single mom (Hudson) who sends him to Harlem to spend Christmas with her estranged parents (Whitaker and Bassett).

The Fox Searchlight film is Goodwin’s first to be financed and distributed by a studio, rather than taking independent films to festivals to find financing.

“I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity with Fox Searchlight,” she said. So how did she get backing from a studio? “It’s about the material,” Goodwin said. Studio projects take longer to make but have such a reach, she said. “What’s so exciting with a film on 1,500 screens, it makes you ask the question: What’s universal?”

Goodwin saw “Black Nativity,” the play, off-Broadway in 2007 and optioned the rights.

“At that time I was seeing a lot of plays – five times a week. Sometimes you get a feeling a piece of material can be a movie,” she said. There’s the story, Goodwin said, but also a magnetism; “something with that will make people stick to it.” That could be anything from an actor to a production designer -- “just a magnetism that will climb all the way to a movie.”

For Goodwin, the magnetism of “Black Nativity” comes from elements of music and entertainment overlaid with the major story – the important story of Christianity – she said, but also one that resonates with secular audiences, too.

“It’s a theme important always, but especially now: Keeping the family together,” she said.

Goodwin said her involvement with “Black Nativity” was very early, and it was cast after she had moved to North Carolina. Goodwin teaches at UNC Chapel Hill and at UNC School of the Arts. She and her husband moved to North Carolina from New York City with their two children a year and a half ago. Goodwin was raised in rural Ohio and went Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. After living in New York for 13 years, she started thinking about leaving the city.

North Carolina seemed like an easy place to live that had things she liked about the city – amazing people, a vibrant cultural scene and intellectual life, Goodwin said. “It just felt very comfortable,” she said, and she found the film scene booming here. She’s excited for film and television in North Carolina, and with production houses in Charlotte and Wilmington, she lives in between in Chapel Hill.

“I think the  we [cast of ‘Black Nativity’] ended up getting were people we dreamed we could get,” she said. The script requires several difficult things, she said. “In a musical, a lot of time is devoted to songs…an actor has to be fantastic in that smaller space,” Goodwin said.

She previously worked with Latimore, as did Kasi Lemmons, the director and screenwriter of “Black Nativity.” It’s hard to find young actors that can inhabit a scene, she said, and they found that with him.

Goodwin visited the set last winter during filming in New York City.
“That set was an amazing set because it was so fun to work on a musical -- people singing to playback, people singing live,” Goodwin said. A film like “Black Nativity” was an opportunity to do bigger things. The scenes in Times Square and a dream sequence are catnip to movie people, she said. “Challenges like, how do we get a camel in Times Square?” She was also there to see singer Mary J. Blige getting into her angel wings.
“That kind of movie magic was in abundance,” Goodwin said.