This week’s pick is based on the play by Langston Hughes, something I knew nothing about. It has shades of a film we’ve previously reviewed, Down in the Delta, though I didn’t feel this one as much as I’d hoped. Much as I love Kasi Lemmons, I found this quite clunky, with unlikable central characters. Still, Angela Bassett lights the way as much as she can, while Jennifer Hudson carries most of the vocals on her shoulders, so it’s not all bad. Shall we?
Black Nativity (2013)
A street-wise teen from Baltimore who has been raised by a single mother travels to New York City to spend the Christmas holiday with his estranged relatives, where he embarks on a surprising and inspirational journey.
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Forest Whitaker • Angela Bassett • Jennifer Hudson
Naima (Hudson) and her son, Langston (Jacob Latimore) live together in Baltimore (birth place of my fave). He’s a teenage dirt-bag for sure but not guilty of anything too concerning, just a touch of public nuisance (depicted in a pretty decent opening musical number). Naima works two jobs to make ends meet but is still unable to get those numbers to crunch, and is about to be evicted, much to her son’s disgust.
She decides her only option is to send him to stay with his estranged grandparents in Harlem for the holidays, though his return date seems hazy. She plans to sort out this mess before welcoming him home but things are pretty bleak all round. On arrival in NYC, L misses his grandparents and is mugged by a street urchin. Then he’s arrested for stealing a wallet, when he was just trying to give it back (or was he?). At the cop shop he meets a dude who takes the piss out of his juvenile crime – and then grandpa comes to collect him.
Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Friend of the Blog, Forest Whitaker) is a no-nonsense dude who’s initially disappointed to meet his grandson, the thief. After explaining the situation, he’s willing to give Langston the benefit of the doubt – while the arresting officer is a pal of the Rev and assures him no further action will be taken. Back at the ranch, Cornell shows his grandson his most prized possession – a pocket watch engraved and given to him by one MLK Jr.
Meanwhile, grandma Aretha (Bassett) is delighted to have her grandson home. Though at dinner it becomes painfully clear to Langston that they know nothing about Naima or him for that matter. When he pushes Aretha for more information about what went down with his mum – who they’ve not seen since she fell pregnant – she swerves the questions. Though she does allude to the fact it was all down to who his father was/is.
Langston is still super mad and vows to help his mother out of this spot once and for all. This involves lifting something worth enough to pay their arrears on the rent – but when he tries to hock the MLK pocket watch at a local pawnbrokers, the owner cautions him to return it. As a pal of the Rev, he knows what it means to him. Langston also meets the dude from jail again, Tyson (Tyrese Gibson) who tells him if he ever needs anything, he can get it for him. Langston makes friends with homeless couple Jo-Jo and Maria. Maria is heavily pregnant and the only time he isn’t totally annoying is when he’s being nice to her.
Will Naima finally come and get her son? Who’s Langston’s dad? Will the grandparents make it up with their daughter – and will she even want to, after what they did? All this comes to a head at the Rev’s re-imagining of Langston Hughes‘ play Black Nativity at the local church. After Langston’s learnt a few home truths from Tyrone at the pawn shop that is. It’s a lot to process but will the family secure the traditional festive happy ending?
You know what to do.
Given the cast and the director, I feel I should have loved this and I just didn’t. I can’t call back to the source material as I don’t know it and maybe that doesn’t help. While all the performances are as good as you’d expect, I didn’t feel bonded to Naima or Langston because there’s hardly time to get to know them properly before he’s whisked away. Their song is quite lovely though, I’ll give it that (Test of Faith). However, Jennifer Hudson managed to make the hairs stand up on the back of my neck in the middle of the shit show of Cats, so that’s not surprising.
The grandparents are fine too but the introduction of so many side characters without padding them out a little bothered me. They do a good job of Maria but I’d like to know more about Angel (Mary J. Blige) for instance. That would be a whole lot more interesting than following Langston around while he makes poor decisions. Genuinely I don’t think he’d have been let off as easily in each of these criminal situations either, regardless of the Rev’s pull in the community.
In the end this just feels empty and heavy handed, ramming the concept of family home with a sledgehammer. It’s nice to get a happy ending but for me it lacked heart. I drifted off a little in the middle, round about the same time Langston had his Away in a Manger/Maria as The Virgin Mary fantasy which is frustrating as this seems to me to have been the most obvious clue that this was based on a play.
Meh all round. Not you though, Angie.
What does my Christmas miracle think of this melodramatic number? Would she sing its praises from the rooftops or abandon it with distant relatives instead? Find out here.