Black Nativity (2013) Film Review, a movie written & directed by Kasi Lemmons and starring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jacob Latimore, Mary J. Blige, Nasar Jones (Nas), and Jennifer Hudson.
I went into Black Nativity completely blind and, despite some circumstantial evidence, was not expecting a musical. It came as a pleasant surprise. From the very first song, the musical element of the film maintained an effective intensity. There were relatively few musical interludes, however, serving as occasional highlights and punctuations to the story.
Baltimor teen Langston (Jacob Latimore) returned home to news of eviction. His mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), had to resort to a measure that, to Langston, seemed worse than impending homelessness. He was to stay with her estranged parents, in Harlem, while she sorted matters out. What was harder for Langston to bear, than his feeling of abandonment, was his inability to help his mother. I would expect anyone who considers themselves street-wise to be wary, when first setting foot in New York City. Langston, however, proceeded to commit a series of naive missteps that would take him from being a robbery victim to a robbery suspect. Having missed each other at the bus stop, Langston’s first meeting with his grandfather, Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), was a bad impression for them both.
Rev. Cobbs was meant to have been given the wrong impression of Langston, as his arrest came from doing the right thing, for the wrong people, while resisting temptation. With his mother’s predicament in mind, however, he spent the balance of the film attempting hustles and criminal schemes. During his brief detention, he caught the attention of another detainee called Loot (Tyrese Gibson). An interest that deepened once Loot learned his relatively unique name.
Beyond Langston’s fixation and resentments over his mother, he found a warm welcome at the Cobbs household. Mrs. Cobbs (Angela Bassett) fawned over him with a nervous energy that bordered on fear. That energy spoke volumes of the larger family dynamic and history, at the center of the film’s plot, and may have been one of the most satisfactorily addressed elements to come out of it. Despite his air of authoritarian aloofness, the Reverend also presented a warm opening. In an act likely meant to instill a sense of pride, purpose, and family history within Langston, the Reverend shared his prized possession: a pocket watch inscribed by Dr. Martin Luther King. Unfortunately, Langston only saw it as a quick cash solution to his singular concern. He stole the watch , intending to pawn it.
Langston was to run into a few colorful characters, during his stay, including a good samaritan (Mary J. Blige), that likely saved his life at a street crossing (either Langston was dangerously distracted, or Baltimore intersections are that much safer than NYC’s). The local Pawnbroker (Vondie Curtis-Hall), however, turned out to be an acquaintance of the Reverend. He granted Langston the opportunity to redeem himself, but Langston saw a new angle; one that came from a re-union with Loot. Loot worked at the Pawn store, and offered to give Langston what he needed, after hours. The Reverend, meanwhile, had his own ideas of how to contend with his grandson’s delinquency.
Langston’s first (and for much of the film, his only) positive experience in New York City came from the imprinting sight of Maria (Grace Gibson). Members of the Reverend’s congregation, Maria and boyfriend, Jo-Jo (Luke James), were homeless street performers with a child soon on the way. Strong performers, their trio with Langston, for a song about social inequity, left me wanting to learn more about their particular story. Unfortunately, their role was confined to an allegory of Naima’s falling out with her parents, and (more directly) Mary and Joseph’s path to the manger. Once that purpose was fulfilled, nothing more came of them. Likewise, the Pawnbroker, as a peer of the Reverend in representing their generation, should have had something to add to the film’s narrative; but was also regulated to a prop extra beyond his singular contribution.
The rapper Nas (Nasar Jones) may have been given a higher profile, for this film, than he actually deserved. Despite having his name and face prominently featured on all manner of promotional material, his actual contribution to the film amounted to a pair of musical cameos. For what they were worth, his walk-ons did have some presence to them. Maybe not enough to share top billing, but enough to be noticed by unfamiliar viewers. While spirited and lyrical enough to compliment the likes of Mary J. Blige, his performances (the second, in particular) came with a degree of braggadocio – inherent to his particular brand of Rap – that didn’t altogether fit. Bragging about how great you are at praising the Lord somewhat belies the act of giving praise.
Jennifer Hudson captured the anguish of the all-sacrificing single Black mother, but her role was largely reduced to a source for Langston’s angst. Very real issues were lightly handled, as the entire back story, regarding Naima’s estrangement from her parents, was reduced to a set-up for the film’s climax.
The climax to Black Nativity centered around a presentation of the Nativity at Reverend Cobbs’ church, but not before a musical dream sequence took Langston through the biblical event, itself. The sequence was set in the present, and populated by various cast members. While it did serve to justify the film’s title and holiday theme, it amounted to little more than a tangent, with no bearing on the rest of the film. Langston kept his appointment with Loot, which turned into a badly escalating confrontation. The bad ending, that would have seemed obvious in a more serious film, was spared by the insular nature of the cast. That same close-knitting also gave away the film’s major plot twist; but (as it served to remind viewers that this was a holiday fairy tale, after all) it did make the contrived ending a fitting one.
At just over ninety minutes, Black Nativity was a relatively short film. I appreciated the discipline in keeping to the holiday theme, but it felt like a requirement that had to be filled – even if it meant sidelining the film’s broader themes. As extravagant as Rev. Cobbs’ Nativity production was, the Gospel experience actually seemed toned down for the film, and Forest Whitaker’s sermonizing understated. It may have been the right tone, however, as a more flamboyant performance might have made for an awkward transition to the film’s cathartic conclusion. Angela Bassett’s performance, on the other hand, was pitch perfect for when that moment came.
What I appreciated most about Black Nativity was its layering of the African-American legacy experience. The film encapsulated the great hopes three generations had placed in each other, and how they have dealt with their respective disappointments. Unfortunately, by encapsulating its characters in a self-contained, self-resolving plot, all answers to some of the important issues raised were reserved for the cast, and not the audience.
I am unfamiliar with play-write Langston Hughes‘ original material, so I am not prepared to cite core flaws. Kassi Lemmons’ treatment, however, came across as a very serious film with a message that needed to be explored and shared, but was ultimately muted in order to justify its title and holiday theme. I fear the answers provided to the film’s characters may not serve the rest of us so neatly. Once the the catharsis onscreen goes away, the larger issues, confronting many in Black Nativity‘s target audience, will remain unaddressed.