Premiered November 27, 2013.
Langston Cobbs (Jacob Latimore) lives in Baltimore with his single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson). A few days before Christmas, they receive an eviction notice.
Naima tells Langston she will have to work during the holidays and that he will spend Christmas in New York with his grandparents, whom he has never met.
He winds up in jail, wrongly accused of stealing a wallet. Langston meets a man in jail named Tyson (Tyrese Gibson), who senses that Langston isn't really "criminal material". He's picked up by his grandfather, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who is the pastor of a Harlem church.
|Langston thinks his grandparents' house is "like a museum"|
Langston decides to steal the watch and sell it to the local pawn shop to get money to go home to Baltimore and help his mother. This doesn't work out, but he gets another idea when he encounters Tyson again. (Tyson works at the pawn shop, trying to better himself.) Langston asks him for a gun, Tyson says to come back on Christmas Eve.
But Christmas Eve is also the night of Rev. Cobb's annual performance of the Black Nativity. Langston is expected to attend. The evening winds up being full of surprises and (perhaps) some divine intervention.
I enjoyed Black Nativity more than I expected. R & B artist Jacob Latimore holds his own against acting heavyweights like Angela Bassett and Forrest Whitaker. Bassett is especially good here.
We can feel Aretha's frustration as she tries to strike the balance between Cornell's pride and Langston's bitterness. Jennifer Hudson does more singing than acting in the film, but she believably conveys Naima's love for her son and conflicted feelings about her parents. Veteran character actor Vondie Curtis-Hall is also good in a small role as a Harlem pawnbroker.
It's also refreshing to set the film in Harlem. It's a part of New York City we don't often see in movies.
The main problem (if you consider it a problem) is that lots of the plot twists are detected before they occur. If you've seen lots of Christmas movies (like we have), you will see which way the wind is blowing. There's a young couple named Maria (Grace Gibson) and Jo-Jo (Luke James) who are obviously stand-ins for a certain couple who had trouble finding lodging in ancient Bethlehem. Mary J. Blige, listed in the credits as "Platinum Fro", plays a character who saves Langston from walking into traffic. She plays an angel in Langston's dream sequence...or is she a real angel?
And it's not a spoiler to say that one or more of the characters will have a spiritual awakening on Christmas Eve.
I'm not a big fan of musicals. But most of the songs here are done in the style of hip-hop and R&B, which made it more palatable to my ears. Hudson's vocals are as strong as you would expect. Bassett and Whitaker aren't known as singers, but Black Nativity is a reminder that they have very good voices. And while his acting was fine, I found Latimore's auto-tuned vocals to be weak. I can't stand auto-tuning.
Black Nativity is a solid, entertaining Christmas movie, worth checking out in theaters while it's still out there.
J.A. Morris' rating:
3 candy canes.
As J.A. Morris says, this is an enjoyable, if somewhat predictable holiday film.
It is very loosely based upon a play by Langston Hughes. The primary resemblance to that work is the bits of the Nativity play we see being staged at Rev. Cobbs' church on Christmas Eve. There are also some great references to other works by Hughes including an effective recitation of his poem "A Dream Deferred." If nothing else, this film can serve as a great introduction to the works of Hughes for the uninitiated.
I particularly enjoyed the gospel choir numbers performed in the church and would have liked to see more of this style of music than the auto-tuning we got in a lot of the rest of the film. (There were some great rap/hip hop interpolations in there as well, though!)
The film is a little bit heavy handed and syrupy at times (some of the magical realism bits were a bit much), but it's a Christmas movie with great actors and it made me leave the theater with a smile on my face. Black Nativity is definitely worth seeing at least once and will get you in the holiday spirit, but I think I might prefer to see the play as as Hughes wrote in on an annual basis.
2 and a half candy canes