It’s easy for a cynic to deride or dismiss any Christmas movie, especially a semi-religious musical espousing the virtues of faith, family, and forgiveness, but for those who simply want to be uplifted by some toe tapping spirituals and some heartwarming life lessons this Yuletide season, Black Nativity should do just the trick. It’s not high art, but it’s got a lot of things to like about it. It delivers a message of peace on Earth and good will towards men that hits the right sweet spot between cornball theatrics and sincerity.
Loosely based on the all African American musical retelling of the Nativity story made famous by poet, playwright, and social activist Langston Hughes, writer and director Kasi Lemmons follows a modern day Hughes surrogate, played by Jacob Latimore. Langston has been forced into leaving his single mother (Jennifer Hudson) behind in his native Baltimore for the holidays as they face eviction. He’s sent alone to Harlem to spend Christmas with the estranged Baptist pastor grandfather (Forest Whitaker) and grandmother (Angela Bassett) that he never got to know. While on his own in an unfamiliar city, Langston sets about trying to find ways to raise money for his mother by any means necessary and figuring out what made her leave New York in the first place.
Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) clearly took a few pointers from her film’s producer, TD Jakes, to graft The Gospels onto the standard inspirational holiday movie playbook, but the film’s source material lends itself to such faith based grandstanding nicely without ever becoming overpowering. It’s designed to teach people not only “the real reason for the season,” but a whole bunch of simple truths about being good to one another. In its own very basic and modest goals, Black Nativity is a solid success, and it’s hard to see how the material could actually be trying any harder without being insufferably preachy. Lemmons walks the line between the popcorn and the pulpit nimbly, with just as much effort put into the characters and their situations as the messages and musical numbers.
Also worth noting on the technical side of things, is just how great the movie looks and sounds. The music and the feel for urban life would have made Hughes’ proud. Even though it only takes place around a few blocks and boroughs, New York feels just as expansive and larger than life as it does claustrophobic and sometimes purposefully cold. The surprisingly gorgeous and colourful cinematography from Anastas Michos brings to mind the work of frequent David Gordon Green collaborator Tim Orr and panels from storybooks by Ezra Jack Keats appropriated for darker subject matter.
Although still a relative newcomer, Latimore has some pipes on him, belting out some grand numbers alongside industry veterans like Hudson and Mary J. Blige (who cameos as a sort of guardian angel character). He might not be ready to fully embrace a leading role as big as the one he has here (sometimes coming off as awkward), but he certainly has charisma, and his character’s struggle with the concept of right and wrong builds up enough sympathy and suspense for the young actor to play with.
The supporting cast gets utilized fairly well, with Tyrese Gibson (who after this film I am convinced I have underrated as an actor) stealing the show as a hustler Langston finds himself equally drawn to and repulsed by. Whitaker adopts an erudite tone to play the highly educated man of the cloth and a former civil rights activist, but he never lets his character’s intellect mask the man’s imperfections or big heart. It’s just a shame that he really can’t sing. Bassett brings good will and charm to a somewhat thankless housewife role, but she does get to sing a bit and one wishes she got more opportunities to pop up in musicals. She’s a natural at it. Hudson disappears for long stretches, but Lemmons certainly puts her vocal talents to great use. Luke James and Grace Gibson get a couple of show stopping numbers as a pair of pregnant teenage lovers who live on the streets. About the only person who doesn’t seem to belong is rapper Nas, who gets shoehorned into two sequences where he seemingly doesn’t belong, spitting verses in songs so laughable that they inspire the only unintentional hilarity in a film that’s already pretty cheesy to begin with.
It’s a story building to a big reveal and a massive outpouring of feelings designed to underscore the power of familial bonds, Christmas miracles, and how the lord works in mysterious ways. It’s a film that audiences will either find themselves drawn to or not. Those who want to see Black Nativity will seek it out, and they should be able to enjoy it for what it is. And considering just how spotty holiday themed fare has been over the past couple of year, it actually lands on the slightly higher end of audience expectations.