LOS ANGELES, December 12, 2013 – The first Christmas film of this year may be one that’s geared towards African American audiences. But “Black Nativity” is really a film for everyone. In this holiday musical, Jennifer Hudson’s singing and acting have never seemed more beautiful and natural as she simply steals every scene.
Starring Forest Whitaker as Reverend Cornell Cobbs, “Black Nativity” gives a realistic urban feel to what is a familiar storyline about love, loss and misplaced pride. Reverend Cobbs’ daughter, Naima (played by Hudson), ran off from Harlem as an unwed, pregnant teenager. Years later and just before Christmas, Naima finds herself losing her Baltimore home to foreclosure and has no place to raise her now teenage son Langston.
Langston (played by Jacob Latimore) has been hardened by a life without a father and without even his estranged grandparents (played by Whitaker and Angela Bassett) until he is sent to New York City to live with them.
In “Black Nativity,” the very welcome Bassett hits all the right notes as a loving Grandma longing for a grandchild to love and spoil. Her performance reminds you of just why she is one of the best actresses of her generation. Whitaker’s performance Reverend Cobbs does not quite find this actor at the top of his game. But he does a nice job playing a Pastor doing everything he can to save his struggling Congregation while devoting his energies to his annual Christmas Concert/Revival and to a grandson he’s never known.
Originally a play written by Langston Hughes in 1961 (hence the naming of Naima’s son), “Black Nativity” loosely moors itself to its source material. Its updating of Mr. Hughes’ work includes a song in the first act critiquing capitalism and extolling the values of a non-materialistic life with a modern-day Joseph and Mary (played by Luke James and Grace Gibson). Sadly, this musical number takes the nativity story and pounds it into the ground.
In addition, the filmmakers made an unfortunate choice of political product placement by making sure a large “Elect Obama” campaign sticker is prominently displayed on a refrigerator during an opening shot inside the Cobbs’ home. Granted, even in 2013, there is a better than average chance an old 2008 sticker might be found on the refrigerator. But it seems as if this shot is an unnecessary intrusion, an attempt at a little political propaganda that’s already out of date.
To be sure, this doesn’t ruin the film. But it does take the viewer out of the film and back into the constant politicization of our daily life. And that’s a shame because unless a film is directly related to politics, we usually go to the movies to be entertained and enjoy some fantasy or adventure for a couple of hours, especially during a Christmas or “Holiday” film.
Even with those missteps, Director Kasi Lemmons has done a good job blending such talented performers and the storyline into a musical that isn’t overly “musical.” Thankfully, “Black Nativity” has more story and dialogue than musical numbers, and this actually helps to make its songs more enjoyable while making a greater impact.
However, some numbers work better than others. While the Jesus and Mary characters may seem as if they were stolen from “Rent,” the rest of the cast admirably rise to the occasion. Tyrese Gibson does a nice job in his scenes as Tyson as does Vondie Curtis-Hall who plays the cagey, seen-it-all Harlem pawnshop owner.
The only weak link in the cast is Mr. Latimore’s “Langston.” He doesn’t offer the audience many expressions and attitudes outside of his “I’m a tough guy” look. Hopefully, he’ll have a chance to show more range in future roles.
All in all, given the tough economic straits that many American households may find themselves in this year, “Black Nativity” is well worth your Christmas season time and money. Reuniting family and putting past differences aside at Christmas is a positive message for everyone.
(Official film trailer below.)
Rating: ** ½ (2.5 out of 4 Stars)
“Black Nativity” is in theatres now.
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