Black Nativity

Black Nativity

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for over 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Kasi Lemmons Films
Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Disappointing biopic of the woman that made "I Will Always Love You" her own

Jenny Nulf, Dec. 23, 2022

Overdue biopic of the fearless anti-slavery hero loses sight of reality

Steve Davis, Nov. 1, 2019

More by Steve Davis
Freud's Last Session
Fictional meeting between Freud and CS Lewis makes no breakthrough

Jan. 19, 2024

Joan Baez I Am a Noise
The public, private, and secret lives of the folk icon

Dec. 29, 2023


Black Nativity, Kasi Lemmons, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Nas, Vondie Curtis-Hall

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Keep up with happenings around town

Kevin Curtin's bimonthly cannabis musings

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle