Despite dealing with quite typical themes of poverty, religious elders and run away baby daddies, Christmas movie Black Nativity tries to imbue festive cheer by taking the Langston Hughes play of the same name and re-envisioning the material as a modern hip-hop musical. The outcome is more than a little uneven.

Jacob Latimore plays Langston Cobbs (check the namesake), a young and rebellious teen whose mother (a spirited but stilted display from Jennifer Hudson) forces him to move from his (newly evicted) home in Baltimore to his estranged grandparents in Harlem, New York. Here he finds himself on a spiritual and emotional journey which helps him find not only the meaning of Christmas but family identity as well.

Black Nativity is a film which likes to think that meaning well will be enough for it to get by. Its mawkish screenplay and awkward editing, do a lot to hinder a film that wishes to place a fresh spin on a well worn narrative. The film often leaps haphazardly from sensitive moment to heavy handed, obvious message musical at the drop of the dime. You can’t dismiss the quality of the music production and the cast, but you can really raise an eyebrow to the often awkward tonal shifts and simplistic lyrics. One may also wonder why certain famous faces appear in the film.  The likes of Mary J Blige and Nas appear as if to only try and engage a certain target audience. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we got more from their performances, but their aural displays haven’t lost their shine.

The film is left up to the older guard to pick up the slack and Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett happily oblige. Both Whitaker and Bassett light up the humorous and dramatic scenes that they feature in and give the film the grounding and energy that Black Naivety sorely needs. This is much needed as Latimore (Vanishing on 7th Street) struggles to carry the film where it needs to go. His surliness feels more wooden than anything and the character himself is tough to love at the best of times.

 

 black-nativity choir agan

 

That said, this is the point of Black Nativity. It reminds us that family is not just in name but in blood, and while the character’s themes and turns are obvious and the film holds no real surprises, the story that surrounds it has enough small moments to connect with its target base. I also have to say that while the film didn’t stir me emotionally, it did direct me towards the works of Langston Hughes; the Black writer whose works became an integral aspect of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement which explored the lives of African Americans during the 1920’s.

While Black Nativity doesn’t have the same sense of commune and spirit that those works brought to people. It clearly shows a wish to try and reach such a depth. It’s safe to say that a cynic like me may find Black Nativity a little hard to swallow, however I will not be surprised if many get caught up with the films music and message.  The film may rest on its good intentions, but in comparison to bigger films I’ve seen this year, at least it’s has them.

Leslie Byron Pitt