Review: ‘Black Nativity’ turns a traditional pageant into a holiday family drama

Langston Hughes is a modern giant, a significant artist who worked as a poet and a playwright and whose work was an important part of this country’s understanding of the black experience. One of his most enduring creations was “The Black Nativity,” a re-imagined musical take on the traditional Nativity pageant, complete with music and dance, and it is still being performed all over the world today. Adapting it to film would seem like a strange proposition, but writer/director Kasi Lemmons approached it as an opportunity, not a challenge, and the result is an earnest, heartfelt family drama that is overwrought at times, deeply felt at others, but which certainly feels like one of the more unique things I’ve seen in a theater this year.

Watching no trailers for something can create the most interesting reactions in a theater. While I was aware of the basic background of the Langston Hughes production, I didn’t realize Lemmons had built an entirely new story around it, or that she had made a full-blown musical. The moment the main character, Langston (Jacob Latimore), begins to sing about his experience as a young black man growing up without a father in Baltimore, I realized this wasn’t going to be what I expected. Instead, Lemmons built a story that she sets the Nativity into as a sort of central point, an event that brings her characters to an epiphany. Her film is much more about the way people either do or don’t live the message of the Nativity in their own lives and their own communities.

Langston lives with his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson), and daily life is a struggle for her, even with two jobs. As the film opens, they’re facing eviction, and Naima isn’t sure what to do about it. As far as Langston knows, they’ve got no support system at all, so he is shocked when she puts him on a bus and sends him to Harlem to stay with her parents, the grandparents he’s never met. By the time he gets to Times Square, where he’s supposed to meet them, we’ve already had three full musical numbers including one by Hudson where she laments having to send her kid away, and it’s apparent that for Lemmons, the music is a chance to blow the emotions out and go big.

By the time Langston finds his grandparents, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha (Angela Bassett), he’s been arrested by mistake and he’s lost everything he was carrying with him, making it a less than impressive first meeting. Right away, there is a tension that comes from Langston’s realizations that he has no idea who these people are or why they’ve had no relationship with him. Obviously, something happened between Naima and her parents, and it’s played as a big secret that Langston picks at from the moment they meet. It’s tied to the mystery of his parentage, although anyone who has ever seen a movie will figure out who the dad is about four lines after he shows up.

The film is tremendously earnest, but it feels like it has to be. Lemmons is working in big broad archetype here, and she’s not trying to do subtle. She wants big emotions, and she’s got a cast that can cut right through to that. Whitaker and Bassett are the ones who really have to steer the majority of the film, and they both do good work and making Latimore look good. The kid’s got a tough role, carrying the entire film, and Lemmons makes good use of Latimore’s natural stoicism. He carries himself as if permanently bruised, so when he does finally open up to sing or to play a big emotional beat, it feels like it is urgent. Tyrese and Jennifer Hudson also both do solid work in small but pivotal roles. For Hudson, it’s almost entirely a singing role, and her greatest gift is that she can push her whole heart out through her vocal performances. She’s fine when she’s speaking, but when she sings, she’s monster, enormously powerful.

Is the film manipulative? Absolutely. Is the film a blunt instrument? Totally. Did it get me in the home stretch? Yes. Lemmons has had a frustrating career after her enormously promising debut film, “Eve’s Bayou,” and I have no doubt that’s due to the way Hollywood has a hard time figuring out what to do with female directors, and doubly-so women of color. She’s only made four films since 1997, and looking at her work here, she has a real voice, a very clear sense of passion. You can feel how much she means this, and even the missteps are made with intent and clarity. She shouldn’t go six or seven years between films, and while “Black Nativity” is a mixed bag overall, it definitely serves as a reminder that she’s been undervalued in a pretty major way over the years. I think there are some lovely grace notes to what she does here. The way she portrays Harlem in the movie, showing both the affluence and the poverty that exist within the same community, is lovely, and the way she treats faith in the movie is more about values than about dogma, and that’s not easy to do.

By the time we finally get to the Nativity itself, there is an inevitable shape to the drama, and Lemmons ties it all up in a big bow in a way that celebrates the idea of healing and hope and the eternal possibility of forgiveness. “Black Nativity” doesn’t have a subtle bone in its body, but fables aren’t really meant to be subtle. Audiences already familiar with the original piece by Hughes as well as family audiences looking for faith-based dramas that they can enjoy together over the holiday could certainly do worse than this, and they may find themselves swept up by the pageantry in the end.

“Black Nativity” opens in theaters today.