It’s the time of year when good intentions count for more than they usually do, when a nice gesture is appreciated even if it’s clumsy and maybe accidentally pokes you in the eye. That’s why I’m OK with “Black Nativity,” a heart-on-its-sleeve Christmas story of love and redemption that’s 100 percent earnest but only about 60 percent successful. What it tries to do is praiseworthy; if we’re charitable, maybe we just leave it at that.
Inspired by Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, “Black Nativity” is a holiday fable written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou,” “Talk to Me”), one of the few black female directors in Hollywood. It’s aimed specifically at Christian, churchgoing African Americans, and is set in Harlem, albeit the sparkling movie version of Harlem where crime and poverty are mentioned but unseen, and where kindly streetwalkers prevent oblivious young men from walking into traffic.
The young man in question is 15-year-old Langston, named after the poet and played by singer Jacob Latimore. Langston lives with his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), in Baltimore, his father having walked out on them when he was a baby. Now facing eviction, Naima sends Langston to Harlem to spend Christmas with his grandparents, whom he’s never met and whom Naima hasn’t spoken to since a falling out some years ago.
The grandparents are Rev. Cornell (Forest Whitaker) and Angela Cobbs (Angela Bassett), pillars of the community known and respected by all. They eagerly welcome their grandson into their spacious brownstone and their lives, and yearn for a reconciliation with their wayward daughter. Langston is sullen and resistant at first, disappointed by life and uninterested in these nice older people’s religious ways. All he really wants to do is come up with the $5,000 it’ll take to keep him and his mother from being evicted so he can return home. (You know a situation is dire when it involves yearning for Baltimore.)
Did I mention that “Black Nativity” is a gospel and R&B musical? It is indeed! Langston and other characters often express their feelings through song, which adds to the film’s allegorical, not-quite-realistic tone. It culminates in Rev. Cornell’s church’s musical Nativity pageant, during which Langston dozes and dreams of even more symbolism (a pregnant neighbor stands in for Mary, etc.). The songs are well-sung — Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige and Nas are also in the cast — but quality-wise, they’re no more than serviceable.
Much more effective are the performances by the authoritative Whitaker, the radiant Bassett, and the hey-this-kid-is-pretty-good-where’d-he-come-from? Latimore. As old wounds resurface and the fractured family must learn to understand and forgive one another, these three (with support from Gibson and Hudson) keep the film grounded, preventing it from slipping into histrionics and melodrama. The people in this movie have problems, some of them fairly serious, but Lemmons’ goal is to stay at surface level, lest the crises sour the Christmas spirit.
As a white Christian, I’m only half of the target audience, but I found the film pleasant enough, its pastoral ambitions compensating for its lack of finesse. It’s didactic and simplistic at times, though that probably comes with the territory when you’re doing anything related to the Nativity. You don’t judge your neighborhood church’s Christmas pageant very harshly, do you? Then again, the Christmas pageant doesn’t cost $10 and require you to sit through 20 minutes of trailers.
B- (1 hr., 33 min.; )
Originally published at Film.com.