Film Review – Black Nativity
With the holiday season kicking into high gear, we can expect our fair share of holiday-themed movies. If you’re not the type who enjoys this kind of fare, it may be best for you to turn away now. Black Nativity is unabashedly a Christmas musical, written and directed by Kasi Lemmons and adapted from the play by Langston Hughes. There’s a lot to like here: it has a ton of heart, and the music performed has passion and soul. However, it’s not a perfect film—it falls for many of the traps that come with the genre. We’re in that strange area where a film balances between two opposite ends: it’s impossible to hate, but really tough to love.
The story is a familiar one. Our hero is Langston (Jacob Latimore), a good (but mischievous) kid growing up in Baltimore. Things have gotten tough for him and his family. His father ran away a long time ago, and his mother (Jennifer Hudson) just got laid off from her job. As an extra Christmas present, they also got an eviction notice from their landlord. “Happy Holidays” indeed! Struggling with money and desperate to make things work, Langston’s mother sends him to his grandparents’ home in New York City. However, it’s never explained why she must ship her kid off to the relatives to make an extra buck. There’s a moving song where Hudson gets to show off her musical prowess, but that’s about it. Whatever the reason is gets washed away as the plot moves along.
The situation causes Langston to have an existential crisis, which is where the narrative works best. He feels responsible for many of the issues. “Why are we in this mess?” “Why isn’t my father here?” “Why is my mother sending me off to complete strangers?” “Why doesn’t anyone want me?” These are all heavy topics for a kid, and Lemmons presents them in a way where they feel tangible. Of all the performers, Latimore plays the most important role, and yet is the least convincing. That’s not to say he’s a bad actor—he is good enough to carry these internal questions—but he lacks screen presence compared to everyone else. He is easily the weakest singer of the bunch, and sometimes (just sometimes) his delivery looks like he’s more sleepy than emotional.
Langston’s grandparents are Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett) and Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker). They appear to be well-off financially, which makes us wonder what caused the riff between them and Langston’s mother. Reverend Cornell is a strong and proud man, even showing Langston a special watch he received from Martin Luther King Jr. Aretha tries to work with the situation as best she can, even when Langston clearly does not want to be there, and questions why they aren’t helping his mother and him when they obviously have the money to do so. When we meet Aretha and the Reverend, they are in the middle of preparing a Christmas Eve celebration at the Reverend’s church. Langston—of course—balks at the idea of attending, but quickly changes his mind at the “persuasion” of his grandfather.
We meet other characters. Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) is a street hustler Langston meets once he gets to New York, who works a day job at a pawnshop but can get anything anybody needs (even if it’s illegal). Luke James and Grace Gibson play lovers without a home, singing for money to help raise their expected child. Hip-hop and R&B performers Nas and Mary J. Blige show up in secondary roles as well. The religious connotations are not hidden. Nas’s character is called “Prophet Isaiah,” while Blige’s “Platinum Fro” acts as something of a living angel. James’s and Gibson’s characters are named Jo-Jo (Joseph) and Maria (Mary). One can only take a wild guess as to what they’re going to name their baby. While each of the supporting members lends their talent during the musical sequences, none (except for Tyson) leave a lasting impression. They’re used more as anchors to help highlight the main plot thread.
The music is very good. None of the songs will burrow into your mind and have you humming when you leave the theater, but they all have enthusiasm. The Reverend’s sermon during Christmas Eve has a boatload of energy. There are all these positives working at the same time, yet Black Nativity is only a middle-of-the-road movie. This is due to the writing settling for easy answers to its own questions. The problems presented in the first act are all dealt with at the same time in the third. Even worse, it’s handled in that clichéd scene where everybody stands around watching as the family hashes out their sappy problems. Of course, everything gets wrapped up in the span of what, a day and a half? Just in time for people to open their Christmas presents.