Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ gospel musical provides the inspiration if not the content for “Black Nativity,” talented director Kasi Lemmons’ sincere if muddled bid for an inspirational — and seasonal — family-friendly hit.
With a PG designation that the film Classification & Ratings Administration attributes to “a menacing situation,” among other potentially worrisome aspects, “Black Nativity” is the first of the four features directed by Lemmons not to be rated R for “pervasive” profanity (“Talk To Me”), “some violence” (“The Caveman’s Valentine”) or “sexuality” (“Eve’s Bayou”).
Those earlier films were fascinating as well as provocative; they demonstrated that movies with African-American casts and themes aren’t required to fit into the tidy subsets of the civil rights drama, the family comedy, the “’hood” crime story, the church film, and so on. In this context, “Black Nativity” represents something of a retreat, but it’s also a stumble, as Lemmons’ refusal to go for cheap laughs and easy uplift places her at odds with the clichéd and predictable aspects of her own screenplay. This tasteful integrity extends even to the musical numbers, which are more often subdued than rousing. The movie overall is earnest and respectful but unexciting.
As originally produced off-Broadway in 1961, Hughes’ “Black Nativity” was a retelling of the Christmas story with a black cast and gospel music. This might have been more faithfully reproduced onscreen as an essentially experimental film or a Frederick Wiseman-style documentary, but Lemmons
uses Hughes’ work as only one element in an original (so to speak) story about a surly Baltimore teenager (Jacob Latimore) sent to spend the Christmas holidays in Harlem with the grandparents he’s never met after his unmarried working mother (Jennifer Hudson) learns she’s facing eviction from the home she shares with her son.
His grandparents live in an impressive brownstone that the boy — named Langston, of course, after the poet — describes as a “black people museum” (it’s filled with art) and a “tight crib” (a punny Bethlehem reference?). Langston’s grandfather is an esteemed Baptist pastor, Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), whose prized possession is a gold watch given to him by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; his grandmother is the minister’s loving helpmate, Aretha (Angela Bassett).
Whitaker is commanding as always until he takes the pulpit, at which point his signature soft delivery and quiet authority become unconvincing for a man who is supposed to be a popular Harlem preacher.
Others in Langston’s new neighborhood include a watchful thug (Tyrese Gibson); a “street prophet” (the rapper Nas); a Mary-and-Joseph-like homeless couple (Luke James and Grace Gibson); a sort of platinum-afroed guardian angel (Mary J. Blige); and a pawnshop owner (Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis Hall) whose antagonistic encounter with Langston represents the movie’s most powerful scene.
The characters rarely last long before not so much bursting as slipping into song (or at least verse). “This right here is the coldest town/ You can’t let it bring you down,” croons Langston. “There’s no testament without a test of faith,” adds his mother. The street prophet played by Nas raps a little: “So let the myrrh, frankincense burn/ You been warned/ Let the angels sound the horn.”
Most of the musical sequences are presented naturalistically (much of the shooting was done on location), unaccompanied by dancing; several numbers are staged almost as soliloquies — interior monologues of doubt and pain, expressed in song. The original Hughes vision of “Black Nativity” asserts itself during the pat final act, when a dramatic family confrontation interrupts a staging of the gospel musical at Rev. Cobbs’ church.
Many of the songs were written by Lemmons, and the movie’s credited “music producer” is Raphael Saadiq, the popular R&B and neo-soul performer and impresario. The most stirring performance, however, is a version of the traditional spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” sung as Langston travels by bus from Baltimore to New York; the montage of blank in-transit faces that accompanies the lyrics captures the loneliness of solo long-distance travel during the holidays.
“Black Nativity” ends with a dedication: “For Cherie.” In interviews, Lemmons has said the film was motivated by the 2011 death of her older sister, Cheryl Lemmons, from breast cancer. Awareness of this backstory adds poignancy to such scenes as a dream sequence in which Langston imagines ancient Bethlehem more or less bleeding over into modern New York (we see camels walking through Times Square, for example), making the city a home for angels and madonnas.
The movie could have used more such boldness to match its good intentions. As it is, it’s more dull than inspiring. The dream scene includes several shots of Langston, snoozing in a church pew, unimpressed by the drama occurring in front of him. The people sitting near me at a preview screening of the film laughed at these shots in a way that suggested they identified with the young man’s response to yet another earnest song.
Rated PG for adult themes and some profanity.