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Black Nativity (2013)
Movie Reviews

Black Nativity (2013)

Aspires to be nothing more or less than an inspirational, faith-based, Christmas-themed family drama – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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There really isn’t anything wrong with Black Nativity. It aspires to be nothing more or less than an inspirational, faith-based, Christmas-themed family drama. It doesn’t matter if I point out that the plot is formulaic, predictable, implausible, and structured with the obvious intent of playing to the crowd; if you leave the theater feeling better than when you first came in, the filmmakers have done their job. It will have that effect on certain audiences. Others will resist its emotional manipulation. Some may even reject it purely on the basis of its Christian themes, even though this aspect of the story was never kept hidden. I find myself in a gray zone between these extremes.

Although its methodology isn’t exactly my cup of tea, the film clearly has its heart in the right place, and I can’t fault anyone involved, least of all writer/director Kasi Lemmons, for believing in the power of uplifting entertainment.

The opening credits tell us that it’s based on the Langston Hughes stage play of the same name. But it isn’t, not really. His original vision of Black Nativity is plainly spelled out in the title; he retells the story of Jesus’ birth with an entirely Moorish cast, utilizing traditional gospel spirituals, Christmas carols, African drum beats, and dramatic lighting effects. The film version of Black Nativity, which takes place in present-day urban settings, tells a rather generic story of a broken family relying on faith and forgiveness to pick up the pieces. The staging of Hughes’ play on Christmas Eve is one of the film’s plot points, and it’s repeatedly mentioned that the lead character, teenager Langston Cobbs (Jacob Latimore), was named after Hughes. Theater purists are unlikely to take kindly to these changes. My advice would be to judge the film on it own terms rather than as an adaptation.

Langston is an at-risk youth who was raised in an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood by his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), his father having long since left the picture. Mother and son are evicted from their home during the holiday season; in order for Naima to get back on her feet, she must send Langston to live with her estranged parents in Harlem, Manhattan. Langston, who is angry, confused, misguided – and, most important to the plot, faithless – arrives by bus to New York City, only to have his backpack immediately stolen by a punk kid. He’s also arrested when his attempt at returning a white man’s wallet is, of course, misinterpreted as attempted robbery. Rest assured, he finally does meet his grandparents, who may have different temperaments but accept him into their home nonetheless.

The grandfather, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), is a stern, proud man whose office is a shrine of African American art and photography. His most prized possession is a pocket watch given as a gift from Martin Luther King himself. The grandmother, Aretha (Angela Bassett), is a homemaker who shows her affections with pleasant words and home cooking. Her hospitality masks deep feelings of guilt over her estrangement from her daughter. The same can be said about the Reverend’s principled demeanor. Langston, previous angry at his mother for not being able to keep their house, is now angry at his grandparents, who live comfortably and could easily have helped his mother financially. Why is there such bad blood between her and her parents? Why is it that Langston never even knew they existed until now? Whatever the case, he seems willing to do whatever it takes to grab some cash, leave New York, and return to Baltimore to help his mother.

Langston will have repeat encounters with several characters, although only one seems to benefit the story – and even then, the reason for the inclusion is transparent fairly early on. I’m referring to a mysterious pawnshop hawker (Tyrese Gibson), who takes an unusual interest in Langston after meeting him in jail. Two other characters, homeless couple Jo-Jo and Maria (Luke James and Grace Gibson), serve no real purpose apart from doing double duty as visions of Joseph and Mary (it will establish context if you know that Maria is pregnant). Mary J. Blige has also been cast, but for the life of me, I don’t know why; apart from one scene in which she prevents Langston from walking into oncoming traffic, she contributes absolutely nothing of significance to the film. If this were a whodunit, she would be considered a red herring.

Black Nativity isn’t a full-blooded musical, although it does feature a selection of character- and plot-driven songs influenced by hip hop, R&B, and gospel. Although all the singers hold their own, the most obvious standout is Jennifer Hudson, whose voice remains just as powerfully soulful as it ever was. She helped alleviate some of the film’s less compelling aspects. This would include the final act, set almost entirely within Reverend Cobbs’ church. This location serves three distinct purposes: (1) Housing a performance of Hughes’ play, which the Reverend has made an annual tradition; (2) provoking Langston until he falls asleep and dreams about the play unfolding on the streets of New York; (3) setting the stage for an ending that wraps everything up in a neat little package and then tops it with a bright red bow. I could criticize this scene for its lack of realism, but that would be like criticizing the sky for being blue. It is what it is.

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About the Author: Chris Pandolfi