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