2013, PG, 93 min. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Starring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Vondie Curtis-Hall.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Nov. 29, 2013
Christmas Eve is a time for redemption according to the holiday mythos – just look at George Bailey, Ebenezer Scrooge, and the Grinch, for starters. In Black Nativity, the musical film drama loosely based on Langston Hughes’ 1961 off-Broadway play, the members of the Cobbs family untangle the sins of the past one Harlem night before Christmas, but the catharsis just isn’t the same. You may shed a tear or two, but your heart won’t swell. Director/screenwriter Lemmons grafts bits and pieces of Hughes’ libretto onto an original story about a troubled teenager named (in a nod to the poet and playwright) Langston (Latimore) who is sent by his mother (Hudson) to stay with his estranged grandparents (Whitaker and Bassett) in New York City after she receives an eviction notice for their Baltimore home. The largest chunk of Hughes’ play transplanted here is Langston’s woozy church-time reverie in which the birth of Christ is staged as stylized musical theatre, but this hallucinatory sequence does nothing to advance the unfolding familial drama. In fact, it stops the movie dead in its tracks. Even the poetic vision of the woefully underused Blige as a mighty angel with an impressive wingspan can't justify the inclusion of this head-scratching portion of the film, no small irony given that its venerated source gives Black Nativity its title.
A hybrid of Hallmark Hall of Fame and Glee, Lemmons’ muddled adaptation is neither fish nor fowl, a filmmaking choice that denies Black Nativity much of its emotional potential. (It renders the occasional storyline gaffe – what’s with the intermittently working cell phones and landline service? – all the more distracting.) Many of the spontaneous outbursts of song feel overly contrived and a few of the musical numbers lack subtlety, to be polite. Langston’s rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” on the bus leaving Baltimore hits you over the head with its literal meaning, though a duet (of sorts) between Hudson and Bassett singing “He Loves Me Still” from different perspectives may be the loveliest moment in the film. Add a few hymns and a Christmas carol to the mix, along with some gospel and hip-hop, and you’ve got a movie that feels made up along the way, one that aspires but never inspires. By the time the chorus of churchgoers end the film with a spirited rendition of Stevie Wonder’s rousing “As” following a demonstration of the healing power of forgiveness, you’re ready for a closing number. Hallelujah.