Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Black Nativity

Directed by Kasi Lemmons.
2013. Rated PG, 93 minutes.
Jennifer Hudson
Jacob Latimore
Forest Whitaker
Angela Bassett
Tyrese Gibson
Luke James
Grace Gibson
Vondie Curtis-Hall
Mary J. Blige

Langston (Latimore) lives in Baltimore, MD with his mom Naima (Hudson). It's a few days before Christmas and they have just received an eviction notice. With nowhere to go, but still having to work over the holiday, Naima sends Langston to live with his estranged grandparents in Harlem, NY. Grandfather, Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Whitaker), presides over the local church. His grandma is named Aretha (Bassett) in the credits, but I swear I never hear her called anything but Mrs. Cobb. This is apt because she basically exists solely for the purpose of being the reverend's wife. Langston tries to get along with them and figure out why they and his mother don't speak. Lots of singing ensues. By the way, we're told a couple hundred times that our hero is named after legendary poet Langston Hughes. That's fitting given that this movie is actually based on a play he wrote by the same name.

The problem with a lot of musicals is that all the creative energy is put into the songs and a crappy movie  is slapped into place around them. Black Nativity perfectly fits that description. As a collection of urban angst and/or gospel tunes, it's pretty good. There's no denying the vocal power of Jennifer Hudson or Tyrese Gibson once either digs into a track. The bulk of the rest of the singing is handled by our young star along with Luke James and Grace Gibson who play a poor, possibly homeless couple who are expecting their first child. More or less, they handle the nativity part of the movie. After all, their names are Jo-Jo and Maria. Get it? Joseph, Mary. Get it now? Okay, good. Throw in a touch of Mary J. Blige and a cameo by rapper Nas and you've got yourself a solid soundtrack.

Unfortunately, the story being told by that music doesn't work at all. It's sloppy, poorly acted, and wholly predictable. The acting is the most disappointing aspect because the cast is a good one. There are some well established names, here. The lead not being one of them, of course. In that role, Jacob Latimore overacts most scenes. The problem is he spends the most time in front of the camera. Jennifer Hudson gets little face time, but is decent while Angela Bassett is just kinda there. Most disappointing, Forest Whitaker turns in a shockingly bad performance. The source of his awfulness is accent he employs. First, it's bizarre and unrecognizable as being from anywhere in particular, especially not New York. Second, it noticeably comes and goes. At times, he sounds like the Forest Whitaker we all know and love. Other times, he sounds like he's literally practicing accents as he goes. It's so distracting, I spent the entire movie making note of when he used it and when he didn't. The most solid performance of them all is given, shockingly, by Tyrese Gibson. His downfall, however, is that the writing does him no favors.

Let's take a closer look at that writing. For one, there is a big fuss  made over the fact that Langston doesn't know who his father is. The process of elimination leaves us only one logical choice. If you're paying attention at all, you'll realize who that is within moments of him being introduced. Aside from that, the whole Nativity thing is shoe-horned in and done in a bizarre dream sequence. Even worse, title aside, it's totally inconsequential to anything happening in the movie. I could go on. Just know that it's lazy and, at times, incoherent. That's a hard thing for me to say, considering the amount of respect I have for director Kasi Lemmons. Lazy is the exact opposite of her other work which goes out of its way to challenge conventions and tell stories in an uncommon manner. Because of this, I featured her in my entry to John Hitchcock's Women in Film Blogathon Part II: The Director's Chair. However, the sad fact is Black Nativity is a frustrating watch. The cast isn't nearly as good as one would expect while the story vacillates between spouting cliches and flying completely off the rails. The movie is at its best whenever it launches into song. Sadly, that isn't nearly enough to save it because it doesn't care one bit how it got to that song.


  1. Yeah, I saw the trailer for this and just

    LOL, great review though.

    1. A hazard of having a wife and kids is that occasionally they get to pick the movie.