Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity is technically based on Langston Hughes’ play of the same name, which tells the story of the Nativity with spirituals and an all-Black cast. But the film works more like an homage than a direct adaptation. While Hughes’ theatrical piece plays a part in the film, it’s tucked inside a framing story that attempts to do many things, from paying tribute to Hughes to tackling a number of social concerns. If you’re grading simply on ambition, Lemmons has outdone herself, which is exactly the problem. She’s a good director who — if her often overlooked Talk to Me (2007) is an indicator — is occasionally capable of something close to greatness, which makes Black Nativity so disappointing. She obviously has her eyes on greatness, but stumbles too often to get there.
Despite her efforts, the basic entertainment value of the film is lacking. The story — written by Lemmons — is contrived and flimsy, the songs that aren’t traditionals are unmemorable (unless Forest Whitaker is singing, which means they’re memorable for the wrong reasons) and there’s a lack of style when it comes to the musical numbers. Simply put, almost every reason you’d want to watch a musical is coming up short on some level. Let’s start with the plot, where we get Langston (Jacob Latimore), a generally amiable, yet frustrated teen (he spray-paints “Xmas Sux” on a wall, so you just know he’s angsty). He’s sent by his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) to stay with his estranged grandparents (Whitaker and Angela Bassett) — neither of whom he’s ever met — in Harlem for Christmas. This is fine in theory, though the film’s reasoning is confusing to the point of distraction. Naima sends Langston off so she can work through the holidays, but sending him to his grandparents makes no sense, because we’re told she hasn’t spoken with them since her son’s birth. Within the context of the film, it’s a ludicrous proposition. All this may be picking nits to some, but when your film’s basic premise is built upon glaring, ugly plot holes, then this is definitely an issue.
Beyond just simple motivation, Black Nativity relies too much on melodrama and lazy contrivances. When Langston runs into the swarthy Loot (Tyrese Gibson), it’s pretty obvious where Loot fits into the story, but it takes the film another hour to catch up. And of course, Langston’s seemingly righteous grandfather will have various skeletons in his closet. Lemmons is surprisingly unaware of how to handle her film from a point of plotting, but she is more assured behind the camera despite lacking any real flash. The musical numbers are all disappointingly flat (while the songs themselves are dull and don’t add much to the movie) apart from one fantasy sequence where Mary and Joseph look for shelter in the middle of New York while camels roam Times Square. (That this takes place because Langston fell asleep in church is probably not supposed to be as funny as I found it.) What’s frustrating about Black Nativity is that it’s obviously a work of passion for Lemmons — one that never gets close to meshing, as entertainment or anything more. Rated PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation.
Playing at Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher.