‘Black Nativity’ Review

Published 10 months ago by , Updated August 22nd, 2014 at 12:53 am,

black nativity movie review Black Nativity Review

Black Nativity introduces Langston (Jacob Latimore), who was named after the great artist Langston Hughes by his parents. An ordinary teenager – spending his free time causing a ruckus with his friends on the cold, cold streets of Baltimore – Langston cannot escape from the inner turmoil he feels, due to the fractured state of his family. His mother (Jennifer Hudson) works multiple jobs and long hours just to make ends meet, his father is long gone and Langston has never even met his grandparents.

In the midst of a last-ditch effort to avoid being evicted, Langston’s mom sends her son to spend Christmas with her father, the devoted Reverend Cobb (Forest Whitaker) and his wife (Angela Bassett) in New York City. Following a rough introduction to life in ‘The Big Apple’, Langston quickly tires of his grandparents’ refusal to discuss the event that drove their daughter away years ago and decides to take drastic action in an effort to care for himself and his mother. However, thanks to some “divine intervention,” Langston instead winds up on a journey to understand the past – and in the process, learns how to heal the spiritual wounds that linger on in the present, within himself and those around him.

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Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore in ‘Black Nativity’

The Harlem Renaissance leader and iconic Black American activist/artist Langston Hughes wrote the Black Nativity stage play, which is a retelling of the classic Nativity story – albeit, one where traditional Christmas carols and hyms are performed in the gospel style – often accompanied by African percussion – with other unconventional creative elements incorporated into the format (unorthodox symbolic lighting, additional soliloquies, etc.). In other words: Hughes’ musical theater work doesn’t exactly lend itself readily to an ordinary film musical.

Writer/director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) deserves kudos for having been able to reshape the Black Nativity source material to fit the mold of a standard three-act film structure, without completely sacrificing the substance of Hughes’ original play. Lemmons even manages to update select themes and concepts, by changing the setting to the present-day and expanding the scope of the narrative. Unfortunately, when taken as a whole, this cinematic interpretation only amounts to a competent adaptation; which, depending on how you view it, is better/worse than being a full-on disaster/success.

Lemmons’ storytelling approach is clumsy at times, resulting in a narrative that doesn’t always unfold in a satisfying fashion, ultimately leaving a couple of important plot threads dangling; it also falls short when it comes to capturing the revolutionary spirit of Hughes’ libretto. What saves the film is Lemmons’ ability to leave her personal stamp on the material, occasionally resulting in a movie that feels like the work of a true auteur (in terms of how she produces striking visuals and resonant themes). Similarly, the various members of the ensemble cast possess the acting muscle (and musical talent) necessary to keep this ship afloat.

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With regard to shot composition and how the action is staged, Lemmons and her director of photography Anastas N. Michos (Man on the Moon, Sparkle) offer up a mixed bag. Certain musical numbers and segments are quite entrancing – such as the film’s opening minutes or the actual “Black Nativity” sequence (presented as a dream/real show in the movie) – while other segments are less engaging and suffer, especially when the project’s limited budget starts to show. The smart – and sometimes inspired – editing by Terilyn A. Shropshire (The Secret Life of Bees, Jumping the Broom) helps to salvage footage that was awkwardly photographed – and, in turn, helps rescue certain scenes that might’ve been too clunky in design to work, otherwise.

Songwriters/score composers Laura Kerpman (The Tournament) and Raphael Saadiq (“I Can See in Color” from Precious) created additional music material for the film in the form of original songs – some of which are mixed with elements of famous melodies – that encompass such genres as rap, R&B and gospel, among others. Some of the musical numbers are forgettable, but others are catchy and impressionable; equally important, they are fitting representations of the characters who perform them.

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Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett in ‘Black Nativity’

Recording artist-turned actor Jacob Latimore does a respectable job in his feature headlining debut, capturing teen protagonist Langston’s moodiness and the vulnerable side of his personality (in both song and spoken word). However, when it comes to selling the young man’s anger or determination to learn about his family’s past/heritage, Latimore’s performance leaves something to be desired. Fortunately, Jennifer Hudson’s performance as Langston’s hard-working independent mom Naima makes up the difference, as the Oscar-winner brings her character’s frustrations, fears and maternal nature to life with gusto. (It should go without saying that she can belt a soulful ballad like few others.)

Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett are well-cast in their respective roles as the wise, but overly proud Reverend Cobbs and his earnest wife, who bring real humanity to the archetypes they’re playing and lend emotional honesty to scenes where they struggle to be proper grandparents to Langston. Meanwhile, various supporting characters – including a ‘wise man’ (Vondie Curtis-Hall), a homeless but kind pregnant mother (Grace Gibson) and a ‘guardian angel’ (Mary J. Blige) – feel like (a bit) more than metaphors in human form, thanks to solid performances from the cast members who portray them.

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Mary J. Blige in ‘Black Nativity’

Finally, Tyrese Gibson leaves his wise-cracking Fast and the Furious Roman persona behind him and does well in the role of Loot, a seasoned and street-wise New Yorker who Langston first encounters during an early jail detour (Gibson, for those who’ve forgotten, can also carry a tune). The film’s third act brings all of the aforementioned characters together in a manner that feels somewhat heavy-handed, but the cast ultimately proves able to make the emotional payoff worthwhile.

That sentiment pretty much sums up Black Nativity: ungainly in execution, yet still infused with enough passion and reverence for Hughes’ original work to be more success than failure. Moviegoers looking for seasonal entertainment that is accessible and family-friendly (without also being treacly and/or bland) – this is a Christmas show that you might want to check out.

In case you’re still undecided, here is the trailer for Black Nativity:

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Black Nativity is now playing in theaters. It is 93 minutes long and Rated PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5
(Good)

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TAGS: Black Nativity

12 Comments

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  1. This is racist. Tired of the double standard. Let’s make “White Nativity” movie and watch heads explode with rage filled accusations of bigotry and extreme racism.

    • Oh, you mean the way it’s always been told anyway……….

    • This film (and the original Langston Hughes play) is about exploring and reflecting upon the experiences of black Americans throughout history (as well as their roots), using the classic Nativity story as a frame of reference.

      Hence the title: Black Nativity.

    • JP, please take a moment to look into and understand the history of this piece. It is not racist at all. I say this as a Caucasian woman who has seen the film and thinks it is absolutely tremendous and so powerful. It promotes love, not hate. Check it out for yourself.

    • wtf nope.

    • This has already been done over and over. Everything is always about you and yours. If you don’t agree with what we have done, don’t go see it. Black people want to go see movies that mirror their lives, not yours. We have gone through years and years of seeing life through your eyes, the eyes that don’t see us and don’t care about our life or struggles.

    • JP Hollywood and Television in general, in America, is white entertainment. If you are looking for the white equivalent of this movie you don’t have to look far, just turn on your television or pick a movie where the predominate cast is white and there you go – The simplicity of such task will become apparent to you immediately and then you’ll hopefully get the point of such movies that everyone once in a while like to give minorites the lime light.

  2. I mean, I get the whole “Black” Nativity thing this movie has going for it, but is that really the best title they could’ve come up with? I don’t quite understand how black people clamor for equality and then go off and make a movie called “Black Nativity”. Why not just “Nativity”? Just a thought. Oh well, at the end of the day it’s just a movie. I’ll see it when it comes out on TV. And by the way, I am of African-American descent so don’t come at me with all the “That’s racist” replies.

    • theirs already a movie called Nativity

  3. Screenwriter, you do realize that the film is based on a classic performance piece going back to 1961 called ‘Black Nativity’ by Langston Hughes don’t you? If not, look into it and changing the title of the piece would make no sense given its context and the fact that it is an adaptation. Also, JP maybe it would be a good idea to understand what the film is about and not just react to a title as you may understand its purpose and how unrelated to racism it actually is. Remember, the term ‘black’ was coined by white American’s to categorize people and everything else by default tends to be ‘white’ without needing to mention it anyhow…

  4. It’s good to remember that the title is the product of its time–the 1960s when the term “black” was just beginning to be used in a good way for African-Americans. “Black Nativity” the play is a commentary on the history and state of the black American community. I believe the reason that it is difficult to make movies about white Americans as a whole is that unlike some of the other groups, “white” is basically everyone who is not black, Latino, Hispanic, African, Asian or Middle Eastern. Thus, all of European descent are in this category, but this group does not have a common history in America like some of the other groups. For instance, black Americans have that since they all descend from slaves and experienced oppression/persecution. What’s considered “white” today is very different from 100 years ago when Irish, Italian, Jewish, Russian, etc, Americans were not thought of as such, but WASPs were. Therefore, to create a commentary on the history and state of “white” America does not translate well as there is not a common core from which to draw from like some other races/ethnicities have. To have a title that points to a study of the “white” race first would need to figure out what it means by that term whereas “black” gives an instant history and meaning behind it. What it means to be termed “white” would be a better study than its state. I’m black and would have no problem if a movie title used “white” as the race in it, but there would be a problem if it was used “just because other people do it” or for “shock” rather than out of true exploration and consideration. Also, I’ve seen “White Nativity” a million times so maybe “Middle Eastern Nativity” since Joseph and Mary were Middle Eastern and not white as they are usually portrayed.

  5. I had a chance to see the movie Black Nativity.l truly enjoyed it,well acted,good plot,musical arrangements were fresh and well done.l will be buying this once it comes out on DVD.

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