Black Nativity, Kasi Lemmons’ cloying misfire, is a sobering reminder that every great director — which Lemmons most certainly is (see: the utterly masterful Eve’s Bayou) — will, one time or another, tackle a genre that just doesn’t suit them well. This doesn’t mean Lemmons is any less important to audiences as a filmmaker or as one of several powerful voices in black cinema. My disappointment mostly lies in the fact that this genre, especially when coupled with highly religious subject matter (read: alienating), prevents Lemmons from wielding the power she normally grips audiences with: pure and raw truth. While it’s natural for musicals to sometimes feel a tad phony and emotionally vacant despite all the boisterous singing, I wasn’t expecting such disconnect between how I was supposed to be feeling and how the characters were actually making me feel. Or rather, unfeel. Putting aside the overblown religious angle of Black Nativity (which will only appeal to the most devout), I expected the A-list cast to at least ignite some semblance of heartfelt sentiment inside of me. But if the majority of them cannot put forth the effort to sell what they are serenading — and preaching — you cannot expect me or anyone else to conjure up anything except dismay and boredom.
Adapted from Langston Hughes’ play of the same name for the big screen, Black Nativity centers its tale on a young boy named Langston Cobbs, played by the committed and musically gifted Jacob Latimore. After Langston and his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) are evicted from their home, Langston is sent to live with his estranged grandparents in New York City for the holidays until Naima figures out a way to successfully rebuild their broken lives. Feeling abandoned and hopeless, Langston now has to contend with his new living situation under the roof of the authoritative Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his sweet yet emotionally scarred wife, Angela (Angela Bassett).
Thrust into an unfamiliar place with grandparents that are as foreign to him as any stranger on the streets of Manhattan, Langston does everything he can to rebel from his current predicament. Cornell and Angela attempt a game of good cop/bad cop to draw Langston closer to their hearts, but that proves unsuccessful. It isn’t until a run-in with a down-on-his-luck pawn shop salesman (Tyrese Gibson) that Langston finally begins to unravel clues about his mother’s past, eventually figuring out the deeply buried secret that shattered Naima’s relationship with her parents forever. The only way to quell Langston’s anger and frustration is — shockingly — the power of divine intervention that comes from Reverend Cornell’s oration of the nativity story. The final act is so heavy-handed and saturated with biblical lessons that it will do one of two things: enliven your spirituality during this festive time of the year…or turn you off by the phoniness of religion in conveniently being able to solve all problems via a few key passages from The Bible. As someone who isn’t religious whatsoever, it’s hard to close my mind and believe in the impossible when my mind’s been so open all these years to the truth of reality. If nothing else, at least the inspired musical numbers guiding Black Nativity manage to stir the soul a bit.
While Langston goes through the cliche motions of a young teenager reacting to an unfair situation — expect a whole lot of anger, petulance and misguided choices — Latimore at least figures out how to rise above his trope trappings. Harnessing a voice that balances soul and contemporary edginess, Latimore commands his musical numbers by tapping into Langston’s fragile state of being. Even when Langston finds himself on the edge of sheer annoyance, Latimore’s focus and determination to make the character sympathetic ultimately win out. I just wish Lemmons’ dialogue found a way to avoid the pitfalls of the brash, impetuous and ultimately obnoxious archetype that permeates many a film dealing with a teenage protagonist.
Jennifer Hudson comes alive as a performer when singing, but oddly comes off dry and non-committal when she puts her beautiful voice to rest and is forced to act. I never felt like Hudson was fully invested in her character; she unfortunately fails to plunge us into the same depths of despair that Naima finds herself in. Bassett is serviceable as the forgiving and highly lovable Grandma Angela, but even she seems constrained by material that feels trapped inside a glass box, just waiting to be shattered. Forest Whitaker plays his strict, conflicted and ultimately flawed Reverend role semi-convincingly. It’s unfortunate that his performance takes two steps back after each new accent he uncovers. No, I’m not joking — almost every scene with Whitaker has him talking in a different accent than the one prior, be it Mid-Atlantic, British, Olde English, or a weird combination of all three. It’s incredibly distracting and pulled me out of the film on multiple occasions.
Only Tyrese Gibson gives an award-worthy performance in Black Nativity. Gibson churns out a career-best as Tyson, a former criminal trying to put his life back in order. His exchanges with Langston are by far the finest and most rewarding moments of the film. Gibson delivers his lines in such a commanding yet authentic way, that you find yourself holding on to and cherishing every word of wisdom his character utters. Tyrese is also the most heartfelt and believable of any cast member during the musical sequences, emanating such heartfelt emotion into every lyric that you cannot help but be moved by the sacrifice his character makes for the supposed betterment of the Cobbs family. Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity may have tested my patience at every corner, but I’ll end on a high note by praising Tyrese to the stars. I’m telling you, this performance will have you see the comic relief from the Fast and Furious movies in a whole new light. This musician-turned-actor is well on his way to more significant roles in the future thanks to the brilliant part given to him. And for that alone, I can forgive the incredible Kasi Lemmons for this bump in her otherwise outstanding filmography.
Fox Searchlight Picture’s Black Nativity opens nationwide today, November 27th. Be sure to check out the trailer below.