Director: Kasi Lemmons
Cast: Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker, Angela Basett, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson
MPAA Rating: (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation)
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 11/27/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 27, 2013
Black Nativity is not only preaching to the choir but also from the choir, the reverend's wife, the congregation, the local pawnshop owner, etc. The problem isn't that the movie wears its religious intent on its sleeve but that it uses religion as an easy, all-purpose fix to each and every problem that its characters face. It's not any specific tenet of faith that helps them, either; it's just the mere existence of religion in the vicinity of their lives during the movie's extended climax of song, dance, preaching, a dream sequence, a standoff with a pistol (One of these things is not like the others), and convenient timing that leads to their respective redemptions.
On a thematic level, the whole thing is difficult to accept, especially considering the fact that the movie acknowledges a glaring hypocrisy in its message of "through faith and faith alone" but never directly addresses it in any meaningful way. In fact, the screenplay by director Kasi Lemmons (very loosely inspired—essentially taking the title and incorporating the show's concept of a recreation of the Nativity story through song and dance into the dream sequence—by the play of the same name by Langston Hughes) outright dismisses the unanswered plight of two ancillary characters by letting them get caught up in the spirit.
Watching people sing about how happy they are to finally have what they want is all well and good, but when there's a homeless couple with a baby on the way doing the same thing, it's disconcerting. From what we see of the couple, they don't need to come to a realization of what they want. We know they have that, but who among these people is going to take a break from the musical numbers and actually try to get the couple what they need?
It doesn't start so overwhelmingly heavy-handed, although when the movie opens with the teenaged Langston (Jacob Latimore) rapping about the conflict within him between succumbing to peer pressure or not, it's not as if everything before the third act is subtle in any way, shape, or form. The follow-up song has Langston's mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in a self-deprecating mood after receiving an eviction notice a few days before Christmas. She wails about how terrible a mother she is, how her son needs a man in his life to teach him the things she can't (whatever those things may be), and how she hopes he'll be better off for holidays with her parents, whom she hasn't seen or talked to since shortly after Langston was born, in Harlem while she works over the holiday to earn the $5,000 she owes.
As awkward as some of these early songs are, it's not on account of Lemmons' direction, which wisely treats the melodies as a natural extension of the characters' actions. No one stops to sing; they are merely compelled to do so during the course of these tough times.
Upon arriving in New York City, Langston falls victim to a series of escalating problems, culminating in a misunderstanding over a forgotten wallet that lands him in jail. Langston's grandfather Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) gets him out of jail and immediately assumes—without hearing a single word from the kid—that his grandson is guilty of some crimes.
He's a proud, stubborn man, which—along with rather despicable thing he did in the past that's revealed just in time for everyone to be redeemed—is the reason Naima has avoided her parents for all these years. His wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) is more understanding, and there are a lot of pregnant pauses from both of them whenever Langston raises the issue of his mother.
It's a very uncomfortable stay, complicated by the fact that Langston is trying to find a way to get money to help keep their home. He "borrows" his grandfather's prized watch—a gift from Martin Luther King Jr.—and tries to sell it at the local pawnshop where the owner (Vondie Curtis-Hall) rightly scolds him. He steals some cash his grandfather's desk but gives it to the aforementioned homeless couple (Grace Gibson and Luke James) who are singing Christmas carols outside his grandfather's spacious, two-level condominium. Langston is the only one who seems to actually care about these two, and he's a complete stranger to them.What's strange is that none of these complications matters when Black Nativity shifts into a long homily followed by a dream sequence that actually is somewhat representative of Hughes' play. The concerns of these people are unimportant because, like in any generic sermon and as opposed to sound drama, it's the answer—not the question—that is above all else.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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