Nov. 26--Jacob Latimore will be spending Thanksgiving with family in his native Milwaukee -- and on 1,500 movie theater screens across the country.
In the role of Langston, a troubled teen of a single mom meeting his estranged grandparents for the first time, Latimore, 17, has the central role in Fox Searchlight's new musical "Black Nativity," opening Wednesday.
Even if you haven't heard of Latimore, you know other members of the "Black Nativity" cast: Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett and multiple Grammy winner Mary J. Blige.
They bring the star power, but the film's heart rests on Latimore's shoulders, said the film's director, Kasi Lemmons, from his opening musical number to a climactic speech.
It's Latimore's biggest platform to date, with the potential to give his other career, as a budding R&B-flavored pop artist on RCA Records, a needed boost.
"My life is about to be taken to another level," Latimore said by phone Saturday from his Atlanta home. "It feels great seeing posters everywhere, and bus stops promoting 'Black Nativity,' and billboards in Los Angeles. It's overwhelming. I can't wait for everybody to see what I got."
His parents, Latitia Taylor and Jacob Latimore Sr., were seniors in high school when he was born. They didn't stay together; Latimore has lived with his mom in Atlanta since 2007, but Latimore's father is heavily involved and a huge influence. In the mid-'90s, Latimore Sr. toured the country with his brothers in a gospel group, LaMore. They rebranded themselves later in the decade as the R&B group Jersey Ave., even touring with Latimore's "Nativity" co-star Blige.
"From about the age of 2, I would walk around with him in my arms, and I was singing to him, and he would try to sing the same stuff back," said Latimore Sr., who still performs in Milwaukee with his brothers in the gospel group the Latimore Brothers.
"I jumped on stage with them at the age of 4," his son recalled. "When they dragged me off, I started crying."
Latimore also learned to sing and dance by obsessively watching a concert video of R&B group B2K and a Temptations TV movie his grandfather gave him.
When he was 9, "Jacob showcased to every single label out there," his mom said. "The (artists and repertoire) reps at labels don't want to take the chance on kids. They were like, 'Maybe you guys should go the Disney route.' But we never wanted to lock Jacob down as a Disney kid. A lot of times they get stereotyped, and it's hard for them to grow up and for people to accept them becoming an adult."
A rising star
While his music career floundered, Latimore pursued acting, landing a role in the 2010 supernatural thriller "Vanishing on 7th Street," opposite Hayden Christensen, Thandie Newton and John Leguizamo. One of its producers, Celine Rattray, signed on to produce "Nativity" and recommended Latimore to Lemmons for the lead role.
"He was the first person I saw, and I never got over him," Lemmons said. "I needed that character to be just extraordinary and really watchable, someone you fell for and were rooting for. Jacob really brought that vulnerability with him, and he's very charismatic. ... You feel his emotion when he sings."
Nearly 1.3 million Facebook and Twitter followers, largely African-American teenagers, would agree. In the wake of Justin Bieber's sudden success, Jacob's mother started getting a lot of calls, and in 2010, Latimore signed with Jive Records, home to Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and Chris Brown.
Hoping for a hit
Jive folded into RCA Records in 2011 and dumped many artists, but not Latimore. He toured with the R&B boy band Mindless Behavior for two years and has made multiple appearances on BET. In the past two years, his music videos for "Like 'Em All,""Nothing on Me" and "You Come First" have been seen more than 16 million times on YouTube.
But Latimore still doesn't have an album to his name, or that crucial, career-establishing radio hit.
"The sonic of a really young voice, that's a challenge on urban radio," said Lisa Cambridge-Mitchell, RCA's senior vice president of marketing. Now that his voice is maturing, "expectations are a lot higher."
RCA hopes to put out an album next year and is considering the release of a Chris Brown-style pop song, "Heartbreak Heard 'Round the World," to radio early next year.
In the meantime, the label is flexible enough to allow Latimore to keep an active profile with his own YouTube videos and a free mixtape released last month at jacoblatimoremixtapes.com.
On the acting side, Latimore will appear in Fox's "The Maze Runner" next September, a film adaptation of a "Hunger Games"-style young adult sci-fi novel. Last week he received three major film scripts, his mom said.
"He'll get lots of opportunities," Lemmons predicted. "Hollywood is harshest to fly-by-night talent, but if you have real deep talent, you can have a lasting career."
Jacob Latimore shares his moves
Go to TapMilwaukee.com to see a YouTube trailer for "Black Nativity," a clip from the movie and a 2013 video of Jacob Latimore teaching Journal Sentinel music writer Piet Levy a few dance steps.
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