Jacob Latimore, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Forest Whitaker in “Black Nativity.” Photo courtesy Fox Searchlight
“Black Nativity,” loosely based on a play by Langston Hughes, is brought beautifully to life by writer/director Kasi Lemmons, a true auteur in every sense of the word. Kasi, a film maker with a distinct point of view, may be telling stories from the African American Diaspora, but they are universal in theme and identifiable through every prism.
The daily routine of Langston, a teenager living in Baltimore with his single mom, Naima, is upended when his mother packs his bags and puts him on the bus to Manhattan to stay with grandparents he’s never met. Naima, having recently lost her job has also just lost their apartment. Rather than subject her son to homelessness, temporary or otherwise, she has fought back her bitter pride and asked her estranged parents to care for Langston during the Christmas holidays while she tries to find a way through her emotional and financial quagmire.
Protesting loudly, Langston feels that Naima’s best chance at survival is with him at her side. If she hasn’t communicated with her parents since his unknown father left when he was a toddler, then there must reason enough for him to stay away from them as well.
Arriving in New York, the Baltimore street-wise Langston is soon disabused of his cred, losing his possessions and getting arrested for theft, all of this before he is able to meet up with his grandparents, the upright and self-righteous Reverend Cornell Cobbs and his loving, down-to-earth wife Aretha. Taken back with them to Harlem, Langston and his grandfather are already on a collision course. Struck by the apparent wealth of Cornell and Aretha, Langston is appalled that they would have allowed their only child to live in dire poverty. There are many sides to this story and Langston, mired in bitterness, is blind to the other side of the story, one he gradually investigates. Whatever transpired involved his absentee father, something his grandfather did or didn’t do, and the pride of his mother. Along the way, Langston will discover many things, but so will his grandfather. Conflict and resentments will build before rapprochement occurs, reaching its climax during the annual Black Nativity celebration at the Reverend Cobbs’ church.
“Black Nativity” is a throwback to the kinds of films made in the 1940s, ones often referred to as “two-hanky” pictures. You won’t sob, but you’ll be surprised to find your eyes well up even as you’re cynically recognizing the overt emotional manipulations and too-coincidental occurrences that drive the story to its satisfying and predictable finish. Yes, the film is manipulative and yes, you can see a number of paths crossing before you hit the intersection; it doesn’t matter. The performances and slightly familiar story are quite satisfying. Although not nearly as accomplished or complex, the story still bears a slight resemblance to “It’s a Wonderful Life” in its underlying belief in the path to spirituality.
A quasi-musical, in that characters suddenly sing of their frustrations and dilemmas, every scene serves to build to the emotional climax. The performances are especially strong with Jacob Latimore as Langston carrying a great deal of the movie on his very young shoulders. Jennifer Hudson as his mother, Naima, proves, once again, that she is not one note, pun intended, but a symphony of emotion and depth. Angela Bassett is as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside and Tyrese Gibson continues to grow as an actor. Mary J. Blige is the hippest angel you will ever encounter and Vondie Curtis-Hall makes you wonder why he is invited so seldom on screen as he has marvelous presence and a face that conveys depth and complexity. One wishes that Forrest Whitaker had grown into his role earlier in the film for he takes the rigidity of the Reverend Cobb a bit too literally at the beginning; by the end, he catches up to the character development and delivers the kind of performance one has come to expect from him.
Ms. Lemmons shows her many strengths in story and music throughout the film, but something that was especially striking was her portrayal of the different social strata within the community. Showing the struggles of the poor and recently poor, she relies on their relationships. This is not the grimness of “The Wire” or the ghetto commonly shown on television. Lemmons shows us regular people fallen on hard times. Crime may be background issues but what sends us deeper into this story are the emotional complexities. A mother has tried her best to stay above water and raise her child in a loving environment. A drowning woman, like so many others hit by hard economic times, she swallows her pride for the sake of her child and gives him the life vest as she tries her best to find a way out of the mess she made of her efforts. This is the day-to-day reality of poverty without the murders or drugs or robberies that populate the screen these days. This is about ordinary individuals, in this case African American, but the struggle and situations are universal. This is not a “black” film; this is a film for everyone. We are all more alike than we are different and Lemmons understands that.
“Black Nativity” is a film for the whole family and perfect for the holidays. Go see it. You’ll be surprised at the emotions it will stir, even if, like me, your view of Christmas is rather cynical.