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Chapel Hill's Joy Goodwin discusses producing Black Nativity

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While others spent their Thanksgiving Eve preparing for the turkey-and-stuffing consumption and an incoming onslaught of family and friends, Joy Goodwin spent the evening at the movies.

Sitting in a screening room of the Carmike Wynnsong 15 in Durham, Goodwin was a spy among audience members who were unaware of her role in making the movie. The film in question was Black Nativity, for which she served as executive producer.

"It's always fun to see a movie you made with a live audience and hear people's laughter and reactions live," says Goodwin, the day after Thanksgiving.

"It just makes it feel so real. For so long, when you're working on a movie, there's no audience."

Nativity is the first film where the Youngstown, Ohio-born, Chapel Hill-based Goodwin, 41, took on executive producer duties. As executive producer, Goodwin developed the material with a writer/director she'd recruited, and together they pitched the project to Fox Searchlight.

Although Black Nativity, a story of a teen (R&B/pop singer Jacob Latimore) who deals with dysfunctional-family drama during the holidays, is her first film as executive producer, Goodwin has other film producing credits, including the Sam Rockwell comedy The Winning Season and the Liam Neeson horror-mystery After.Life. Goodwin, who began in television production, got into movies as a scout, looking for books or plays that could become movie properties.

Perhaps aided by her experience as a theater critic for the New York Sun and the New Yorker's Goings On About Town section, Goodwin knew which projects to look for. "And when I saw Black Nativity," she remembers, "and it was in 2007 off-Broadway, I instantly wanted to make it a movie. In fact, my initial thought was that it must already be a movie. But it wasn't, and that surprised me. Because I thought that it was such a great idea for a movie."

By experiencing the play with an audience, Goodwin became convinced there would be a demand for a movie version.

"I was very moved by the production and I was very moved by the audience. And it was one of the few shows I ever seen where I felt like people really loved the show. It wasn't just that they applauded, but there was a real groundswell of affection for that show. So, I knew that was special."

Goodwin eventually optioned the rights to Langston Hughes's gospel retelling of the Nativity story, which was first performed off-Broadway in 1961. Her project would soon find a home at Fox Searchlight Pictures, with religious mogul T.D. Jakes and film producer Trudie Styler (aka Sting's wife) eventually joining the circle of producers.

Goodwin recruited Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou, Talk to Me) to write and direct. "This was really a passion project for her from the beginning," says Goodwin. "She wrote the script very quickly.

"She wrote it and then it just took a while to get the cast together and the music together so that we could actually go into production."

Lemmons assembled a talented stable of performers. Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson plays Latimore's mom, while Forest Whitaker (another Oscar winner) and Angela Bassett (an Oscar nominee) play his grandparents. Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige and Nas also appear to provide some voices during the musical numbers, composed and produced by artist, producer and former Tony! Toni! Toné! frontman Raphael Saadiq.

In its first five days of release, Black Nativity earned $5 million at the box office, which is impressive given the mixed reviews it has received as well as the 1,500-plus screens it's currently playing on. Stephen Rea of the Philadelphia Inquirer praised the film's "whopping serving of Yuletide emotion," while the INDY's Isaac Weeks found the film's religious themes sanctimonious.

But this isn't a critics' movie. Goodwin knew the film would have a ready, willing audience. "Movies today have to be things that a lot of people want to see outside of their house," she says. "That's the profile that they have to fit. I knew already that there was this enormous tradition of local productions of Black Nativity that people come to every year. I thought, this is something that already has a fan base. More than that, it's something that is just exciting to go and see in a movie theater—a musical, you know, a timeless and very important story for many people."

Goodwin, a graduate of Wake Forest University, teaches at UNC-Chapel Hill and University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Despite the distance from New York and California, Goodwin still has her foot in the movie-producing game. Another film she co-produced, the internationally financed family drama May in the Summer, is scheduled for release later this winter. She's also working on an adaptation of William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust with Winter's Bone director Debra Granik.

But, of course, she's proud of what she's accomplished with Black Nativity, a film she feels is sorely needed, not just during the holidays but during this age of big-budgeted nonsense at the movie theaters.

"If you look at what big studios release now, the DNA of those projects tends to be pretty similar," she says. "So, this is a bold thing for a studio to do in this climate."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Nativity scenester."

Related Film

Black Nativity

Director: Kasi Lemmons

Writer: Langston Hughes

Cast: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Nas, Rotimi and Henry Hunter Hall

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