Among the many crowded family gatherings and festive celebrations this Thanksgiving weekend, “Black Nativity” shows up in theaters like an unwanted party guest. Based on the play by Langston Hughes, this big screen Christmas musical does pack an impressive invitation list with Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Terese Gibson, Mary J, Blidge, Jennifer Hudson, and Jacob Latimore. Sadly, writer/director Kasi Lemmons (Talk To Me) doesn’t know what to do once they arrive. Clumsy and confusing, there is no amount of yuletide cheer that can save this hodgepodge of a holiday movie.
Combining teen angst with religious faith in something all together awkward, “Black Nativity” focuses on telling the story of Langston (Jacob Latimore). The character is moody and sullen in ways that only come from being raised by a single mother (Hudson). The street-wise Baltimore teenager is given the worst news ever after his mom sends him to Harlem to stay with his estranged grandparents (Whitaker and Bassett) mere days before Christmas. With plenty of long lasting bad blood between parents and daughter, Langston somehow finds himself in the middle of a family feud that has lasted for decades. As he begins to warm up to his new surroundings though, so too does his outlook on life begin to change.
With so many rap songs, power ballads, and an assortment of excellent solos sung by Jennifer Hudson, it’s easy to get lost in all of the music. Yet, there is no questioning that even for a musical, things get a little excessive. So much so, that Lemmons uses all of these musical numbers to substitute for actual storytelling. When a tender moment between mother and son is needed, the filmmaker throws in a duet instead. When Langston feels sorry for himself on the bus from Baltimore to New York City, he raps through his inner struggles. Even in church, Forest Whitaker can’t refrain from breaking into song. What makes all of this even worse is that Lemmons doesn’t even bother to introduce the melodies. Instead, she just throws them in, one after another, as if her movie were a Christmas compilation of music videos rather than an actual feature film.
Despite the trite story, newcomer Jacob Latimore (The Vanishing on 7th Street) is very convincing as the sensitive protagonist Langston. He has no problem mugging the screen with depressing emotional sincerity, and backs his performance up with his very impressive voice.
The real shining star, however, is Jennifer Hudson. She breathes plenty of life into such unmoving melodies as “Motherless Child” and “Hush Child.” Unfortunately, the actress is underutilized as a character after her son is shipped off to New York. The rest of the cast is just as underused. Mary J. Blidge’s role isn’t even given a name. She simple shows up, sings a few songs, and then quietly fades away. As for Forest Whitaker, he doesn’t get to use his vocal cords until the last number of the film.
With the surprise hit of last week’s “Best Man’s Holiday” and the upcoming “A Madea Christmas,” “Black Nativity” will certainly fizzle out faster than a forgotten glass of champagne. Even though Lemmons tries to do something new by transforming the bruised hopes and desires of a realistic inner city family’s plight into a gripping musical tale, I don’t know if it was at all wanted or needed. Langston Hughes’s off-Broadway smash hit was a racially charged call to arms when it premiered in the 1960s. In 2013, this silver screen adaptation won’t be causing any uprisings. Well, maybe for a ticket refund.
By David Morris