Black Nativity (2013) / Drama-Musical

MPAA Rated: PG for thematic material, language, and a menacing situation
Running Time: 93 min.

Cast: Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Grace Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Luke James
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons (based on the libretto by Langston Hughes)

Review published December 5, 2013

Though its story is only tangentially related to the original work, Black Nativity is a film inspired by the acclaimed off-Broadway 1961 Langston Hughes play/libretto of the same name. Most of this is relegated to a hallucinatory dream sequence in which the protagonist finds himself at a crossroads between the allure of his father's road of stealing for a quick buck and the harder road of finding spiritual enrichment in faith.  It is a musical, but not very committed to it as a genre, as there are lengthy sequences that are full-on drama. At its core, it is about family, spirituality, criminality and poverty, and how these things interact to affect the community at large during the Christmas season.

Jacob Latimore (Vanishing on 7th Street, The Maze Runner) stars as Langston, named after aforementioned poet Hughes, an at-risk Baltimore teenager who, so as not to experience whit might be certain homelessness, is sent from his financially struggling single mom, Naima (Hudson, Sex and the City), to live with his estranged grandparents in Harlem shortly before Christmas. His grandparents are a popular Baptist minister in the area, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Whitaker, The Butler), and his wife, Aretha (Bassett, This Means War), who haven't had much of a relationship with Naima after a falling out due to her relationship with Langston's father, who had a checkered past. The reverend is a tough-love kind of guy, and though welcoming to Langston, he does expect him to respect the rules of the house, enough for the lad to beseech his mother to send him back home.

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me, The Caveman's Valentine), the film, like her past work, plays more as a figurative allegory than as a realistic portrayal of family distress. The movie is executive produced by mega-church pastor T.D. Jakes, who continues to explore themes of Christianity and its symbiotic relationship with the black community.  The film is well acted by a top-notch supporting troupe, including Academy Award winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, as well as Oscar-nominated actress Angela Bassett. The songs punctuate the mood of the piece well, and the vocal elements are quite good, with Hudson in particular standing out with her rich and powerful voice to uplift the material.  Whitaker gives a nuanced performance as the preacher whose insistence on respecting his integrity has not only magnetized a community, but also has divided his family in ways he never intended.

While the music is sublime and the acting is of good quality, the film as a whole doesn't make the jump from good to great due to the high-gloss sheen that coats every element of the film experience. This is a film that might have benefited from a more earthy delivery, especially in how it deals with crime and poverty in the city. Rather, it sometimes feels like a well-produced flick for the Hallmark Channel, as even the least-desirable residents (prostitutes, thieves, etc.) with seedy occupations look like they jumped out of a J. Crew ad. 

There is also some old-fashioned sentimentality that permeates this piece (some might call it corny), that makes it feel like an inauthentic look at some rather contemporary issues.  This is sometimes the case with films with religious bents, as the makers of these pieces don't like to dwell on fleshing out the seedy nature of sex, violence, drugs, and crime any more than they have to in order to make their ultimate point.  Nevertheless, it also means that this inauthenticity will likely preach more to the choir than it might in reaching beyond its base to motivate wayward young people to perhaps go a different path in life.

However, even if the film doesn't exactly have much street cred other than a minor appearance by rapper-extraordinaire Nas, for a film that aims at older African-American audiences, it's a robust holiday movie that dabbles in various styles of genre, coalescing its spirituality in its music and the power of faith to transform hardship into hope.   I suppose I should admit to a certain bias here in that I'm a huge fan of the music composer and producer of this film, Raphael Saadiq, from his days with R&B group Tony! Toni! Tone! to his current solo work, which is rich in the soul tradition of the 1960s and 1970s.  Saadiq doles out a vibrant gospel/R&B/hip-hop soundtrack that is savvy and well-suited to the kind of movie this is, shoring up powerful new ballads and uplifting traditional spiritual harmonies to set the stage for the morality play underneath.

Black Nativity may benefit more from the bells and whistles of its soundtrack and its casting choices than most films, so if you're not impressed by these things, it may not likely be for you.  However, I do think it will connect well to its intended audience, so for that, I'm giving it a solid recommendation for its vivid mix of music and message, tradition and history, in order to evoke feelings of personal responsibility and the importance of faith -- a rare thing in this age of Christmas films that eschew all of its religious significance in exchange for blatant commercialism or low-aiming dysfunctional family reunions played for silly guffaws.

Qwipster's rating:

2013 Vince Leo