Published Nov 28, 2013'Tis the season for feel-good family fare, and Black Nativity — despite its weak and corny script — is exactly that. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, the film is based on poet/playwright Langston Hughes' award-winning play of the same name. While it's not quite a direct retelling of the classic nativity story, the movie is a contemporary take on the tale, promoting values like faith, family and finding oneself.
Playing out like a gospel musical, this film adaptation focuses on a broken family who face a range of problems as Christmas nears. Stuck in the middle of all of this is Langston (Jacob Latimore), a streetwise teen who's sent to spend the holidays with his grandparents after his mother (Jennifer Hudson) receives a notice of eviction at their Baltimore home. Of course, Langston is less than impressed with the idea of moving away. Having never met his grandparents, due to a family rift his mother won't give details about, he begrudgingly leaves for the Big Apple, vowing to find the money his mom needs to pay their rent.
Upon arrival in the big city, Langston experiences a bout of culture shock. His grandfather is the well-known Baptist minister Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), whose hard nature and strict rules quickly make his grandson feel unwelcome. Lightening up the mood, however, is Cobbs' sweet and cheerful wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett), who tries her hardest to make Langston feel at home. At times, Langston shares touching moments with his estranged relatives — such as cooking with his grandmother and learning about his grandfather's connections with Martin Luther King, Jr. — but as he's too concerned about troubles at home, the teen soon becomes influenced by unwise ideas. He turns to a shady-looking local (Tyrese Gibson) to help him earn fast money, but later learns that the man is much more than the troubled soul he appears to be.
Strong casting gives Black Nativity strong potential: there are cameos from rapper Nas and singer Mary J. Blige, Latimore proves himself as a promising performer (and whether you like it or not, his vocals are reminiscent of Justin Bieber), and Whitaker and Bassett are great in their roles as the grandparents, but even top-notch acting can't save the film from its script, which doesn't give them much to work with.
Bassett takes on the concerned and doting grandmother, Whitaker's take on a firm yet stubborn nature is effective. Hudson, on the other hand, is rarely seen, only appearing here and there to add her strong vocals into the mix. However, the same can't be said for Gibson's role as the local tough guy, whose performance is strong but seems completely underused.
Musically, the film has pretty great songs that are complemented by impressive vocals (yes, even Forest Whitaker sings), but despite some of the valuable messages that can be taken away from the movie, its corny dialogue and sloppy ending takes away from the compelling tale Langston Hughes' original intended to be. But hey, if feel-good musicals during the holiday season are your thing, then Black Nativity will give you exactly what you want.