Film Review: Black Nativity

There's a wealth of talent, most of it poorly used, in this disappointingly misconceived holiday offering.

Langston Hughes' 1961 play Black Nativity, still performed annually in African-American communities, has been adapted to film by writer-director Kasi Lemmons, who sets it in modern-day Harlem. Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) is sent to live in New York with his grandparents, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, who, yes, is actually named Aretha (Angela Bassett), by his struggling single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson). Although Cornell has a thriving congregation and a beautifully maintained brownstone home, the mysterious source of strife which has estranged Naimi from him and Aretha gets under Langston's skin. He becomes rebellious, even turning to crime to get Naima present, while trying to uncover the answers he so desperately needs.

Black Nativity is but one more in the year's gratifying and impressive abundance of black-themed films, and I wish I could say that with all of its cultural provenance, ambition and daring, it is the crowning achievement among them. But Lemmons unfortunately top-loads the project with three extremely challenging cinematic tropes which would take a filmmaker far more accomplished than she to even dream of bringing off. It is not only a musical, but it employs a number of tricky dream sequences and, most daunting of all, is heavily laden with religion. Her effort to present the musical numbers springing organically from the most natural situations and settings is laudable at first, with the always revivifying, soul-piercing voice of Hudson bidding an aching farewell to her son at a bus stop, followed by a thrilling hip-hop arrangement of "Motherless Child" sung by Langston and his fellow passengers.

But those overly produced dream segments soon interfere, adding a jarringly unwelcome stylization and unreality to the proceedings, throwing you completely out of sync with the story as Langston continually envisions his absent Mama as still present in his life, warbling away. Dream sequences, dating back to the Hollywood studio days of the 1940s-50s, were always the too-easy bane of musicals; here, it's confounding, as if Lemmons actually thinks she's being innovative, using this hackneyed device I'd hoped had disappeared forever. She completely loses control in the protracted, terribly over-the-top final dream, which bizarrely restages the birth of Christ in Times Square. (When Langston, despite a noisy congregation, chorus and rock band, falls dead asleep and again goes off into fantasy land, while prominently seated in a pew at Cornell's climactic Christmas service, you wonder why some fellow parishioner just doesn't poke him awake with an elbow.) And "embarrassing" is the only word one can use for Lemmons’ decision to have all of the Cobbs' most intimate family secrets spilled out at this occasion for the delectation of the assembled devout, like a Jerry Springer show set in church.

Prominently featured in those damned dreams is the great Mary J. Blige, who is wasted in the role of a sort of guardian angel of the streets Langston encounters, who then must appear, quite risibly, sprouting a gigantic pair of wings. (It's as great a misuse of talent and blown opportunity as Sidney Lumet's static and tinselly glorification of Lena Horne as Glinda in The Wiz.) Whitaker thankfully gets to show a few more sides to his character's personality than the saintly servitude which made The Butler, finally, a tad monotonous. He has admirable strength, anger and dignity here, but I hope he doesn't turn into a complete pillar of rectitude like some dull, black Gregory Peck in future film appearances. Preachy does not even begin to describe the final third of Black Nativity's running time.

Bassett has her accustomed, impressive poise and beauty, but rather overdoes the highly concerned simpering here. (You feel the actress' over-eagerness when, in her first scene, she greets Cornell at their doorstep with such fervor it's as if he's just returned from a long overseas war; I muttered, "She needs to take a chill pill.") Although Hudson is touching, and gets plenty of opportunities to display That Voice, I far preferred her more devastatingly raw portrait of a harried single mother in The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. Latimore has an androgynous beauty, sometimes actually resembling that fabled ancient bust of Nefertiti, and sings well enough, but is somewhat stiff as an actor. Nas and Grace Gibson (playing pregnant) are physically appealing as a pair of very well turned-out, down-and-out street musicians he befriends, but as skimpily conceived by Lemmons as an updated Joseph and Mary, you don't believe their characters for a second, and they're really quite extraneous. (Lemmons obviously has some trouble portraying urban grit. When Langston has his backpack stolen, having just arrived in Times Square, it simply doesn't ring true to anyone familiar with the Disney-fied, cop-riddled area that place has become.) Vondie Curtis-Hall (Lemmons’ husband) lends some weathered flavor as a neighborhood pawnbroker, and Tyrese Gibson, as a thug who plays a crucial role in the plot, does what he can with very little.