Inspired by Langston Hughes’ beloved musical play, Black Nativity is an earnest slice of uplifting holiday drama that benefits from a smartly chosen cast. Writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ decision to combine actors who sing with singers who act is a risk that pays off thanks to an overriding tone that’s never less than heartfelt. While some viewers may be put off by the film’s lack of humor and upfront religious elements (which are neither soft-pedaled nor insufferably preachy), others will be drawn to it for precisely the same reason.
Lemmons crafts a contemporary story around the bones of Hughes’ gospel-infused nativity play, casting singer-actor Jacob Latimore as a Baltimore teen named Langston (natch) whose struggling single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), is facing eviction and sends her son to spend Christmas with grandparents he’s never met in New York City. Grandfather Cornell (Forest Whitaker) is a reverend in a Harlem Baptist church, and grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is a dutiful homemaker who sings in the church choir. While they lovingly welcome Langston into their home, Langston isn’t so eager to reciprocate the affection, especially given the Reverend’s strict rules.
The relatively sparse narrative is kept afloat by the actors’ ability to hint at more complicated family dynamics than the screenplay readily explores. Reliable pros Whitaker and Bassett convincingly conjure the conflicted feelings of heartache over years of being estranged from their daughter and elation at getting to know their grandson. Hudson makes Naima a credible combination of independent woman and concerned mother, fiercely devoted to her son but too proud to forgive her parents for past mistakes. And Latimore confidently carries the film as a young man understandably angry that he’s been kept in the dark about his family’s history.
Although the film is relentlessly straight-faced, the performers help steady what is essentially an emotional exercise from tipping over into the usual holiday season sappiness. They ground the relationships with just enough reality to keep viewers invested in the characters and their fates. A former actress herself, one of Lemmons’ consistent strengths as a filmmaker has been her work with actors—dating back to her auspicious debut with the 1997 drama Eve’s Bayou—and Black Nativity is no different.
Here, however, both Lemmons and her cast face the additional challenge of making a musical. While most of the vocal demands rest with the capable hands of Hudson, Latimore and Tyrese Gibson (in a pivotal supporting role as an overgrown delinquent Langston meets when he’s arrested on false charges), Whitaker and Bassett also prove adept at contributing to the mix of original songs and reworked gospel classics overseen by executive music producer Raphael Saadiq. (Mary J. Blige and rap star Nas, billed as Nasir Jones, also pop up in cameo roles that feel calculated to beef up the soundtrack.)
Rather than strict fidelity to Hughes’ stage-bound source material, Saadiq’s mix of modern and traditional music fits Lemmons’ overall approach. The songs are presented in a mix of intimate character-oriented turning points and dream sequences, allowing the raw power of the music to contribute to, and frequently drive, the story. It’s not until the film’s predictably happy ending that the music becomes fully transporting, lifting the audience up in joyful celebration. Fortunately, it’s exactly this warmhearted feeling that could make Black Nativity a holiday perennial.
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Writer: Kasi Lemmons, based on the play by Langston Hughes
Starring: Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Nasir Jones, Vondie Curtis Hall
Release Date: Nov. 27, 2013