Review: Black Nativity
Kari Lemmons’s Black Nativity, loosely based on Langston Hughes’s 1961 “gospel song play,” is a glossy, well-intentioned musical with a three-way mix of contemporary R&B, large-scale church singing, and lite hip-hop. Here, the nativity story—the subject of Hughes’s play—is relegated to a late-film dream sequence, with the main plotline given over to a contemporary coming-of-age tale. A single Baltimore mom (Jennifer Hudson) struggling to stave off eviction sends her 13-year-old son Langston (Jacob Latimore) to spend Christmas with her pastor father Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), from whom she dropped out of contact long ago on account of a mysterious breach of trust. Relocated to Cobbs’ Harlem brownstone, Langston sulks, rebels, and comes into contact with, among others, a shady pawnshop owner, a white-afroed angel, and a homeless couple with hearts of gold. It all builds to a dramatic church-set confession—and a Christmas miracle.
To my eyes, Black Nativity is the cinematic equivalent of a Christmas tree ornament: shiny, hollow, sheathed in decorative, artificial linings, mass-produced and, given the cost of today’s movie theater tickets, overpriced. The singing, however impressive, has been smoothed out into oblivion in post-production. The songs themselves play like over-saturated music videos, and their blunt insertion into the narrative suggests a TV changing stations or a web browser toggling between tabs. The film depends on a series of outrageous contingencies explained by appeal to such concepts as faith, grace and miracles, which are used interchangeably and almost entirely meaninglessly to evoke a warm-and-fuzzy network of associations: Christmastime, family, forgiveness, tolerance, et cetera. And the movie’s take on urban crime, with heat-packing toughs reciting Langston Hughes poems from memory, strikes me—despite my limited knowledge of “the streets,” as one character here puts it—as a little dubious.
Which is to say, if you’re the sort of person who doesn’t like to hear words like faith or providence being tossed around without hearing them defined, dammit; who expects movies about contemporary urban life to do justice in some measure to what poverty, crime and desperation actually look like; or who likes their musicals as far from MTV territory as possible, then Black Nativity is probably not for you. If it hasn’t emerged by now, I am part of that Grinchy bunch, and I can’t help but find something a little disingenuous about this movie’s buffered vulnerability and glossed-over naturalism. But in the end, who is the film fooling? Lemmons delivers exactly what she promises: an ambitiously mounted, gorgeously designed, well-sung, heartwarming Hollywood spectacle built to appeal to affect and emotion above all else.
There’s even a sense in which Cobb’s show-stopping Christmas Eve pageant, where the film’s climactic family reunion takes place, works as a kind of simultaneous self-defense and self-critique on the film’s part. Whitaker’s character might be a proud showman who comforts his listeners with vague, catchall platitudes—but he puts on a grand show, with a wealth of handclapping, Bible-thumping, onstage costume changes and rousing choral numbers. As soon as his long-estranged daughter confronts him onstage, the (figurative) curtain tumbles abruptly down, show and life blur, and the performance takes on a new level of sincerity.
In the case of Black Nativity itself, that change never comes. That said, it would be a severely limited critical method that asked every film to shatter formal boundaries, break through to as-yet-unexplored psychological depths, or single-mindedly pursue Meaning and Truth, and while I confess I don’t find much of interest in Black Nativity, I’m willing to bet that, in this case, the limitation is at least partly mine. Soon enough, after all, I’ll be decorating my Christmas tree, and it seems more than a little disingenuous to criticize one kind of ornament when I’m about to hang my own.