If you are familiar with the original Black Nativity, a Langston Hughes Off-Broadway production weaving together stage/song/gospel, then there's a pretty good chance you know what to expect from this cinematic vision re-scripted and directed by Kasi Lemmons, director of 2007's under-appreciated Talk to Me. The original production has become a highly esteemed and oft-reproduced experience within the African-American holiday experience, and Lemmons does a respectable, though immensely paint-by-number, job of capturing the essence of Langston Hughes while giving this film a voice all her own.
While faithfulness to the original text is often a concern when it comes to adaptations, recreating Black Nativity is really a different sort of beast because Hughes himself intentionally left it all open to reinterpretation and re-imagining. Unfortunately, it's actually the story that Lemmons wraps around this entire affair that mutes its overall impact and practically guarantees it'll be a film that flies quickly through theaters before landing at its more rightful place in the home video market.
The story centers around your almost stereotypical young teen, a boy named Langston (Jacob Latimore) who lives in near poverty in Baltimore with his loving but constantly struggling mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson). When the family is served an eviction notice, Naima ships Langston off to spend the holidays with her estranged parents in Harlem, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett). Langston isn't in Harlem for five minutes before he's experienced the dark side of the city and finds himself in jail alongside one of the neighborhood's obvious troublemakers, Tyson (Tyrese Gibson).
It should come as no surprise to anyone that interspersed throughout this tale is a re-imagined Nativity story with a strong urban flavor and an abundance of old school R&B/soul-tinged gospel tunes delivered well despite their overwhelmingly obvious lyrics.
If not for the presence of Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, Black Nativity would likely be an easily tossed away film for anyone except the most hardcore devotee of such cookie cutter Christmas stories. Whitaker's Reverend Cobbs, however, practically commands your attention with his faithful devotion, historical reverence for his time with a certain Rev. King and Whitaker's absolute magnetism and steadiness even when delivering cringeworthy lines. We also get a reminder that Whitaker can carry a tune, though admittedly not with the fiery passion of a Jennifer Hudson or a Mary J. Blige, the latter whose presence here seems primarily as a sort of angelic presence.
There are glimpses of a truly visionary film that occasionally surface in Black Nativity, most notably a delightful and moving scene loosely recreating the Nativity and dropping it smack dab in the middle of Times Square. Believe it or not, it really works! It also pushes to the forefront young Jacob Latimore's singing voice and stage presence which both outshine his current acting chops. Admittedly, he's saddled with the challenge of playing a PG-rated wannabe bad boy here, but that whole thread truly gives the film its Tyler Perry melodramatic vibe that hinders the film but never sinks it.
While the music doesn't always gel with the tone of the film, okay actually frequently, Black Nativity is at its best when folks like Hudson, Blige, Nas and Vondie Curtis-Hall are serving up tunes both familiar and unfamiliar such as "Motherless Child," ""Silent Night," "The First Noel," "Coldest Town" and others. There are tunes that fall flat, most notably any time this all tries to go a bit too contemporary and the soundtrack gets infused with rap vibes that feel out of place in this lower-keyed holiday vision. Most of the film's professional singers are called upon more to sing than act with Jennifer Hudson delivering more songs than spoken words and Mary J. Blige practically silent except when singing.
Black Nativity will resonate most with those who've already incorporated the original vision of Langston Hughes into the holiday tradition experience. Already designed as a holiday tradition that allows for re-imagining and retelling, this flawed yet still marginally effective cinematic experience will likely be most treasured by those who will embrace its message more than the way it's delivered. While I can't say I'll be rushing out to watch the film again, Black Nativity is a likable enough way to kick off the Christmas season in away that reminds persons of faith to remember the reason for the season.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic