Talking Movies

December 4, 2013

Black Nativity

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Langston Hughes, the Horace of Harlem, wrote Black Nativity as a play, and it’s turned into a sort of musical here with decidedly odd results.

Moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) faces eviction just before Christmas. His single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in desperation sends him on a bus to New York City to stay with her estranged parents while she tries to raise $5,000 to save their home. Langston, however, no sooner arrives in NYC than he’s jailed for doing a good deed while black. He’s rescued from sparring with fellow prisoner Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) by the arrival of Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is more than a bit aggrieved to meet his grandson for the first time when bailing him out of lock-up. Arriving back to their imposing Harlem brownstone grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is overwhelmed with joy by Langston’s arrival, but he is stunned at the wealth on display. Will he be tempted to appropriate some to bail out his mom?

Black Nativity is a sort of musical because, despite writer/director Kasi Lemmons co-writing a number of original songs, it’s as embarrassed at being a musical as 2002’s Chicago. People burst into song, and nobody notices, or (confusingly) some people notice and join them on backing vocals as everyone else continues about their business oblivious, until in the finale everybody notices – and joins in, like a deleted James Brown scene from The Blues Brothers. It’s hard to know what the intention was, initially it seems to be a hip-hop opera, then it reverts to traditional songs, before abandoning music to become a poor man’s riff on Gilmore Girls as Rory Langston gets to know his well-to-do grandparents and understand their estrangement from his single mother. Will he discover the truth about his father? Hard not to, it’s signposted in flashing neon….

There are some things that work amidst the derivativeness, clichés and confusion. Vondie Curtis-Hall is on fine form as a wise pawnbroker, and Romiti has a good scene as compassionate cop McDaniels. A hallucinatory sequence in which the agnostic Langston imagines the pregnant busking couple Jo-Jo (Luke James) and Maria (the distractingly pretty Grace Gibson) transforming into Joseph and Mary, with Mary J Blige becoming an angel and Nas the street prophet Isaiah is interesting. But still it doesn’t come close to the BBC’s barmy but effective ‘Passion to the sounds of Madchester’ from a few years back. Ultimately Rev. Cobbs, at his celebrated Black Nativity, addressing his Christian flock, yet referring to the Nativity story as happening just before the beginning of the ‘Common Era’ by which he means the Birth of Christ, sums up Black Nativity – wilfully perverse.

Despite Kasi Lemmons assembling a veritable A-list of black acting/music talent for her bold Langston Hughes reinvention, this film about a minister’s family must be reckoned a curate’s egg.

2/5

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