When his mother receives an eviction notice of their home in Baltimore, teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) is sent to spend Christmas with his estranged grandparents in New York. Determined to help his mother out, Langston starts down a potentially destructive path, until he discovers the truth about his family.
Kasi Lemmons’s film is based on the Langston Hughes musical of the same name, but has placed the story in a recession-fuelled environment. The film boasts all all-star cast, including Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Tyrese Gibson.
Black Nativity is billed as a musical, and the play it was based on was certainly a musical, but the film is not quite the all-singing, all-dancing spectacular it could be. While the characters start off singing the big moments of their lives, the film uses songs as exposition, and after the show stopping farewell between mother and son, the film simply uses musical numbers in dream sequences and Christmas Eve religious celebrations.
Jacob Latimore is left to do the heavy emotional lifting of the film, and mostly fails. Langston – a name inspired by the author of the original play – is a kid who makes one terrible decision after another. Although his motivation may be mostly clear, he is selfish and manipulative for most of the film. Jennifer Hudson, as Naima, does not have a lot to do, but she belts the songs she is given, reminding us that she is an excellent singer.
Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett play the estranged grandparents, and it seems as though both characters deliberately shy away from any true emotion, for the sake of reciting their lines. Each character in the film can be defined in almost one word, leaving the audience wondering why we should care about people who have made bad choices in their lives.
As a writer Kasi Lemmons leaves any emotion created in the film feeling overdone, and characters underdeveloped; many of them feel as though they were inserted for the sake of a song, rather than for any narrative purpose. As for the narrative itself, the film has an incredibly simple story, but one that is never truly told; resolution comes too quickly, and the using religion as a turning point for the characters makes the film feel less like a Gospel celebration of Christmas, and more like a sermon from the mount.
Lemmons’s direction is heavy handed, which makes the film feels more like melodrama than a musical, and every character’s reactions are either over the top of over simplified. The film ends up feeling trite, poverblown and undercooked, with a nativity story shoved in for good measure.
Black Nativity is a charmless, trite and exasperating look at characters that seem to have no desire to redeem themselves. Drama becomes melodrama in a tale of underdeveloped characters, little motivation and songs that have been shoehorned in, almost for the sake of it. A confusing, boring and frustrating experience.