Black Nativity: Film Review

A first-rate cast enlivens this ambitious but syrupy holiday musical.

The adaptation of Langston Hughes' popular musical fable features Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett.

This year has seen a remarkable demonstration of the emergence of a potent new African-American audience.  Studios always recognized that certain action movies and irreverent comedies would attract black moviegoers.  But the success of Lee Daniels’ The Butler and the strong opening weekend performance of The Best Man Holiday have upended all of Hollywood’s assumptions.  Fox Searchlight may well add to this winning streak when Black Nativity opens this week.  Based on Langston Hughes’ popular musical fable, this holiday extravaganza with an all-star cast has a lot of failings.  But it seems likely to tap into the audience’s enthusiasm for uplifting entertainment.

Hughes originally wrote his play in the 1950s.  Writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) has updated it but kept the Harlem setting and some of the musical motifs.  Because of economic hardship, a teenage boy named Langston (Jacob Latimore) is forced to leave his mother (Jennifer Hudson) and go to live with his grandparents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), whom he has never really met.  His grandfather is a prominent minister as well as a stern taskmaster.  Langston is tempted by the criminal underworld in Harlem and initially repelled by the stern moral precepts of his grandfather, who rejected the boy’s mother years earlier.  It’s not too hard to predict that the Christmas holidays will melt hard hearts and bring this long estranged family back together.

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In the movie’s early scenes, director Lemmons makes some daring decisions in an effort to create a different kind of movie musical.  Characters break into song in everyday settings, and these scenes work surprisingly well, partly because Hudson and Latimore are such gifted musical performers.  Unfortunately, once Langston reaches Harlem, Lemmons abandons most of these experiments for more straightforward musical numbers presented in a more realistic manner.  This would be less of a problem if these musical interludes—many of them performed in the Reverend’s Church during a Christmas service—were more innovative and energetic.  But the second half of the movie, perhaps in deference to Hughes’ original creation, turns awfully static and theatrical.  It doesn’t help that these scenes are also steeped in heavy religiosity.  This will be fine with many of the intended audience members, but skeptics and nonbelievers are advised to steer clear. 

During this lengthy church service, a heavenly fantasy that envelops Langston attempts to galvanize the movie, but it remains stubbornly earthbound.  The Christmas card sentimentality is meant to be balanced by Langston’s encounters with some of the more menacing figures in Harlem, and although performances by Tyrese Gibson and Vondie Curtis Hall (Lemmons’ husband) help to bring some grit to the film, the mixture of urban realism and candy colored artifice doesn’t jell very comfortably.

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The outstanding cast certainly helps to make the treacle more digestible.  Whitaker and Bassett both sing reasonably well, and their performances add unmistakable gravitas to the proceedings.  It’s thrilling to hear Hudson and Mary J. Blige demonstrate their vocal chops, and indeed all of the supporting players blend smoothly into the ensemble.  Even in this heavyweight company, however, Latimore may be the standout.  He’s convincing as a potential bad boy, but he always has us rooting for him to end up on the right side.  And his musical gifts are pretty astonishing.  All in all, the best thing about the movie is that it introduces us to this major new talent; we look forward to the next stages of his career.

The musical score, which consists of many spiritual and holiday standards as well as some winning new songs by Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman, bolsters the movie.  The Harlem locations, including the Reverend’s impressive old brownstone, are well rendered by cinematographer Anastas Michos and talented production designer Kristi Zea.  This is one of those movies whose heart is very much in the right place.  One wishes Black Nativity well.  One also wishes it were a lot better.

Opens:  Wednesday, Nov. 27 (Fox Searchlight).

Cast:  Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Nasir Jones, Vondie Curtis Hall.

Director-screenwriter: Kasi Lemmons.

Based on the play by:  Langston Hughes.

Producers:  Celine Rattray, William Horberg, Galt Niederhoffer.

Executive producers: Trudie Styler, T.D. Jakes, Joy Goodwin, Derrick M. Williams.

Director of photography: Anastas Michos.

Production designer:  Kristi Zea.

Music:  Raphael Saadiq, Laura Karpman.

Costume designer:  Gersha Phillips.

Editor:  Terilyn A. Shropshire.

PG rating, 95 minutes.