Review: Black Nativity

Kasi Lemmon’s Black Nativity tries to be many things at once, and it’s astonishing how well all of the pieces fall together. The film is a musical, based on a libretto by famed poet Langston Hughes, and explores poverty, hidden family secrets, Christmas miracles, crime, and a dream sequence of the Nativity story in modern New York. None of this should work mashed together like that, but it all does. Black Nativity is a moving, soulful film that delves deeper than most films of its ilk. It’s the film to see this Christmas.

Black Nativity is one of three 2013 Christmas films to feature all-black casts. The Best Man Holiday is an insufferably corny but largely forgivable trifle of noisy prayer, sexual misadventures, and football games. The upcoming A Madea Christmas promises to be, well, yet another dumb Tyler Perry joint. Black Nativity, in stark contrast to its immediate peers, is dramatic and achingly meaningful. This is a film that wants to sing its angst from its very feet.

It also wants to try something new. This is not a film that can be easily classified, which is always a great relief in a cinematic marketplace full of stultifying sameness.

Jacob Latimore plays an at-risk Baltimore teen named Langston (after Hughes) who lives with his impoverished mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson), on the brink of being evicted. To save him from living on the street, Langston is sent to live with Naima’s estranged and relatively well-to-do parents, played by Angela Basset and Forest Whitaker. Gramps is a Baptist minister and scholar of African American studies who insists that his broody teenage grandson attend his Christmas Eve service. Langston will have nothing to do with this, and wonders why his grandparents are estranged from his mother, why no one seems to talk about his father, and how he’s going to get the money to help mom from the street. Yes, a gun is involved. More than anything, we feels Langston’s stilted frustration.

This sounds like off-the-rack melodrama to be sure, but director Lemmons is a sensitive enough director to mine the story for the real meat (not to mix metaphors), and turn the conceptually stagey Christmas dream sequences and song numbers into passages of actual dramatic power. The songs are not stagey or demonstrative, but actually dramatic. This is a film that ends with a teary group hug which it actually manages to earn. Using nothing more than a skilled brand of hyper-realism and no small amount of genuine heart.

So when a congregation of celebrants is once again celebrating the Nativity story in a real church, and a young man is singing about a modern-day analogue within his own dream sequence, it’s not preachy or corny or blunt. This is a film that celebrates Christmas, and points to why that might be important.

Black Nativity is, despite its grand ambitions and novel tone, overall rather slight. It only takes place over the course of two days, and there isn’t much in the way of mystery or tension surrounding the central family’s dark secrets. It’s graceful and occasionally bombastic, but it’s not grandiose. It could have also stood a few moments of levity. But what Kasi Lemmons did was a rousing success; She made an earnest film about Christmas.  

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. You can read his weekly articles Trolling, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.