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The film "Black Nativity" is already in theaters. It didn't get the kind of buzz "Anchorman 2" has, but it still got people in Hollywood talking. That's because it's part of a trio of movies with African-American casts put out this fall by the studio Fox Searchlight. NPR's Mandalit Del Barco explains.

MANDELIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This season, Fox Searchlight dished out a complete meal. First, an appetizer in September, the romantic comedy "Baggage Claim," starring Paula Patton.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "BAGGAGE CLAIM")

PAULA PATTON: (As Montana) It's not a man I need. It's a husband, or a potential husband, in a month...

DEL BARCO: Then, in October, the studio served up a substantial main course with "12 Years a Slave." The sweeping epic, by director Steve McQueen, is already an Academy Award shoo-in.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (As Solomon Northup) I will not fall into despair. I will keep myself hardy till freedom is opportune.

DEL BARCO: Now, "Black Nativity" is Fox Searchlight's dessert, a sweet Christmas tear-jerker. Oscar winners Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson sing their way into the holidays.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLACK NATIVITY")

ANGELA BASSETT: (As Aretha Cobbs) It's time to forgive. And it's time to come home.

DEL BARCO: This new film, set in Harlem, is a modern version of a classic Langston Hughes play familiar to many African-American audiences. Director Kasi Lemmons says it was an easy sell to Fox Searchlight's senior vice president of production.

KASI LEMMONS: I was at the Spirit Awards and ran into Zola Mashariki, from Fox Searchlight - who I knew. And so I said, Zola - you know - I want to do "Black Nativity," and she said, I'm doing it. I said, OK - because, you know, I'm going around, and I want you to hear my pitch. And she said: I said, I'm doing it.

ZOLA MASHARIKI: I was like, of course I know "Black Nativity," the play. Of course I know Langston Hughes. Why hasn't anyone done this?

DEL BARCO: Zola Mashariki is one of the few black studio executives in Hollywood.

MASHARIKI: It really took having someone in this position who had worked their way up the ladder, to be in a position to buy who could hear that story and go, I know that story. It should be a movie, and people are going to connect with that idea. I don't think many of my colleagues would have heard that and said, I know exactly what that is.

DEL BARCO: Mashariki started out a Brooklyn-born lawyer who studied at Harvard, and taught in the Afro-American studies program with Cornel West. She also co-founded an African-American theater group with playwright August Wilson. At Fox Searchlight, she also brought in "The Secret Life of Bees," "Notorious" and "Just Wright."

MASHARIKI: That makes me really proud because I'm part of that community. And when I came to Hollywood, I wanted to make many different kinds of films, but I think I would have died if I didn't have the opportunity to tell stories about people who looked like me.

DEL BARCO: Mashariki says the studio's slate is a happy coincidence, since the films she shepherds are constantly in development. She's also excited by the recent box office successes for rival studios: Universal's "Best Man Holiday," and the Weinstein Company's critically acclaimed films "Fruitvale Station" and "The Butler," not to mention the movies Tyler Perry churns out every year for Lionsgate.

Film critic Gil Robertson says there have been waves of black filmmakers before, in Hollywood.

GIL ROBERTSON: Urban filmmakers who are outside of the mainstream tend to go through this dance every four or five years with the studios; you know, where you see these rumblings, you see a nice body of work and then, you know, the next year, it's nothing.

DEL BARCO: Still, Robertson credits Fox Searchlight, and Zola Mashariki in particular, with supporting black filmmakers; and he says major studios pay attention to box office successes.

TYRESE GIBSON: Black people's been getting a lot of play in Hollywood.

DEL BARCO: "Black Nativity" co-star Tyrese Gibson says he's really excited about the new energy he's seeing.

GIBSON: Old Hollywood practices would be that you can't have a movie with that many black people and expect it to be successful - because it's going to cater to a specific audience. But when you have a bunch of different type of movies that ends up doing well, everybody in Hollywood have to start rethinking what their approach to filmmaking is.

DEL BARCO: Forest Whitaker, who stars in "Black Nativity" and "The Butler," has been in the game since the 1980s. He says he's also encouraged by the diversity of roles he's getting, and he hopes the box office success translates to even more films with black casts and themes.

FOREST WHITAKER: I think as that continues to open and these films, like, receive the audiences here and abroad, then it'll open up the space for other cultures to be able to do the same thing.

DEL BARCO: In January, Fox Searchlight plans to add a fusion dish to its cuisine: "Belle," a British, mixed-race romance set in the days of slavery.

Mandalit Del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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