By Dan Metcalf, Jr.
Clipper Film Correspondent
Black Nativity (Fox Searchlight)
Rated PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation.
Starring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Jacob Latimore, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Luke James, Grace Gibson, Rotimi.
Written by Kasi Lemmons, based on the play by Langston Hughes.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons.
Good Christmas movies are few and far between. I suppose one reason is the short window of opportunity for such films, even though that window seems to expand into October these days. Not many films about the actual birth of Christ have gotten much traction – perhaps because it is such a familiar story. One such version of the famous tale is Black Nativity, a musical starring Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as a Harlem preacher and his wife trying to help their estranged grandson find his way.
Jacob Latimore plays Langston (named after Langston Hughes, who wrote the original play upon which the film is based), a young man living with his single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore. When they are suddenly faced with eviction from their home just prior to Christmas, Naima sends Langston to stay with her estranged parents in Harlem over the holidays until she can get things worked out with her finances.
When Langston arrives in New York City, his grandparents, The Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Bassett) just miss him at the bus station, and the boy falls into trouble over a misunderstanding with a white man and his wallet. In jail, Langston meets a hustler named “Loot” (Tyrese Gibson) just before his grandparents bail him out (why a juvenile is in lock up with adult men I don't know). The Cobbs take Langston to their upscale Harlem home a few days before Christmas, where he does not feel welcome. He also does not understand why he never knew his grandparents, nor why they aren't offering financial help to his mother.
As Langston struggles with the division between his mother and grandparents, he feels justified in taking some of the reverend's money and valuable possessions, including a watch given to him by Martin Luther King, Jr. While trying to sell the watch at a nearby pawnshop, Langston encounters Loot (whose real name is Tyson) again and asks him to help him buy a gun.
As Christmas Eve arrives, Reverend Cobb's church performs its annual Nativity cantata, during which Langston drifts off into a dreamlike imagination of Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus – as if they were going through their story in modern-day New York. His imaginative version of the story highlights the injustice and poverty surrounding the birth of the “King of Kings” - making him more frustrated over the trouble in his own life and family.
In anger, Langston awakens from his dream, leaves the church and meets Tyson in time to make a deal for the gun, which we assume he intends to use for a robbery. At that very moment, Langston learns the truth about his father and returns to the church with Tyson. Shortly after, Naima arrives at the church, making for an awkward reunion (among a hail of gospel music), much like a big reveal one might see in a Jerry Springer or Maury Povich episode.
Black Nativity is a unique take on Christmas, and isn't at all what I expected. As far as religion and the Bible are concerned, please take note that there is no blasphemy in Black Nativity – only a likening of Christ's birth as imagined by a man trying to make sense of what it means to save one's soul in the midst of so much worldly strife. For that reason alone, Black Nativity is a beautiful and heart-warming film that truly captures the “glad tidings” mentioned in the story of Christ's birth. The movie also carries a beautiful lesson of hope and redemption for those going through trials involving family members.
That said, Black Nativity might not be your cup of tea – especially if you don't appreciate traditional gospel songs set to hip-hip and rap music styles. If you do appreciate such musical genres, then Black Nativity is a worthy musical, with great performances from Mary J. Blige, Nas and especially Jennifer Hudson – who steals the show with her outstanding voice.