Black Nativity

Directed by: Kasi Lemmons

Starring:  Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nas, and Jacob Latimore

Black Nativity should have been the perfect storm for movie magic.  It stars a heavy lineup of Oscar winning and nominated actors, including Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson and Angela Bassett.  Black Nativity is set during the holiday season, it revolves around Christianity and family, and is based on a Langston Hughes’ play.  In fact, as part of a marketing blitz, two of the actors from the film, Grace Gibson and J. Mallory McCree visited my church last Sunday.  Gibson (Lynn Whitfield’s daughter) was especially winning and sincere, and they sold me on taking my family to see Black Nativity. I wanted to like the film.  Unfortunately, Black Nativity fails to deliver any sort of complexity, and at best comes across as a made for television movie.

Naima Cobbs (Jennifer Hudson) lives in Baltimore, Maryland with her teenage son Langston (Jacob Latimore).  Unfortunately, Naima has fallen on hard economic times and she and her son are set to be evicted from their home right at Christmas time.  In order to spare Langston, Naima contacts her estranged parents and asks them to temporarily take her son.  Langston is furious as he does not know his grandparents, does not want to go to New York and he desperately wants to help his mother try to save their home.  However, he relents and takes the bus up to New York City.

Langston meets his grandparents in Harlem and is startled by what he finds.  Although Naima and Langston are struggling to make ends meet, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett) have a beautiful home and are living well in Harlem.  Moreover, the Cobbs have a rich family history with ties to the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King.  Langston is stunned to discover his roots. As Langston tries to figure out a way to help his mother financially, he is unexpectedly on the path to discover the secrecy surrounding his birth and the rift between his mother and her parents.

Directed by Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), Black Nativity boasts a strong soundtrack and powerhouse vocals.  Jennifer Hudson definitely reminds us of the performance that led to her Oscar.  In fact, Hudson has not been this strong in a film since Dreamgirls.  Hudson’s overly dramatic singing style is perfectly suited for the musical genre and her voice shines throughout the film.  Moreover, Tyrese Gibson, who plays a wise veteran thug, also brings a raw soul to the film.  In fact, Gibson is probably the most interesting character in the whole film and his performance of Langston Hughes’ famed poem “A Dream Deferred” made me reflect on what could have been had he played the lead role in Django Unchained.

Though the soundtrack boasts powerful songs like “Be Grateful,” “Hush Child (Get You Through This Silent Night)” and Stevie Wonder’s “As,” music alone cannot save a musical that is too thin on plot.  As an initial matter, Black Nativity’s whole plot is revealed in the film’s trailer.  If you have seen the trailer, you have essentially seen the movie, and that is always disappointing. The film’s storyline is simplistic, predictable and ultimately sickeningly saccharine sweet.  The characters and their relationships needed to be fleshed out more.  As a result, the Cobbs’ family and the film's plot are simply too superficial.

Furthermore, some of the acting and direction leave a lot to be desired. The lead young actor, Jacob Latimore, did not resonate with me, and his acting felt cheesy at times and not believable.  The symbolism, a heavy handed dream sequence and other direction choices felt contrived. In addition, while the supporting cast is strong, Mary J. Blige (in the worst wig known to man) and Nasir Jones felt simultaneously underutilized and random.

Black Nativity earns a low 0.09% rating.  While the music and some of the performances are enjoyable, you’ll feel better watching it on cable than if you spend money to see it in theaters.