Langston Hughes' dream gets deferred in Black Nativity
Watching Black Nativity is such a wearying experience I see no point pretending that its positive message about the Black America Family is good enough for anyone. This is a case where the messenger (s) must be blamed for ruining the message.
As one of the increasingly rare contemporary films to present a religious or Christian perspective, Black Nativity, based on a 1961 work of Negritude by the Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes, turns the Christmas tale of Christ's birth into a metaphor for the reunification of a Harlem family: Rev Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife (Angela Bassett) have been estranged from their daughter Naima (Jennifer Hudson) who ran away after her teenage pregnancy and raised her child alone in Baltimore.
Hard times force Naima to send her now teenaged son named Langston (Jacob Latimore) up North to live with the grandparents he's never met and young Langston and the entire family is made whole. Problem is, this Hallmark Hall of Fame-style miracle, feels more mechanical than spiritual. Black Nativity never grasps Langston Hughes' honesty about Harlem street life or the old-fashioned grasp of shared feelings and common qualities that defined Negritude (the ethnic ethos that Spike Lee turned rancid in his Black church movie Red Hook Summer).
From disastrous miscasting to bungled storytelling, Black Nativity misses most opportunities to make Black gospel sentiments seem pertinent to the way its characters live; that is, to rectify Red Hook Summer's defamation. The too easy emphasis on young Langston's hip-hop generation truculence and Naima's single-mother martyrdom overshadow the elders' sense of regret. The film's one good line: Rev. defines himself as "the brokenhearted kind" of grandparent. It's unfortunate that writer-director Kasi Lemmons hasn't a clue how to convey that sorrow or its loving roots.
Black Natitvity is the most ineptly directed movie I've sat all the way through this year. Watching it gave the feeling of seeing Langston Hughes' hopes for Black American family, community and culture sinking into a morass of incompetence. Lemmons makes homiletic points but cannot visually coordinate a single dialogue exchange or activity. Her best moment: Young Langston, looking miserable on the bus to New York, is told "I feel ya" by a fellow passenger, another dejected young black man (played by the rapper Nas). But what follows are a series of rank amateur mishaps and reconciliations--starting with Hudson's insecure acting and over-singing.
Lemmons botches her own attempt at a multilevel, Julie Taymor-style musical spectacle that mixes the Reverend's Christmas pageant with the passion play of young Langston's desperate desire for family unity. She doesn't get the knack of musical performance (something Todd Graff aced in last year's A Joyful Noise). Her church choir scenes and a second nativity metaphor involving a pregnant homeless girl (plus Mary J. Blige as a white-haired, winged angel) are pitifully staged without rhythm or a sense of warmth. Even Whitaker and Bassett seem uncomfortable as stick-figure oldsters.
Producer Bishop T.D. Jakes wants to make restorative movies but he's settling for Tyler Perry level incompetence. Black Nativity should have revived the fundamental humanism that made The Color Purple a triumph--Spielberg's "God is Trying to Tell You Something" number went beyond Alice Walker's novel to answer Langston Hughes' Harlem Renaissance dream. If Bishop Jakes can't get Spielberg, surely there are other directors who could fulfill his desire for cinematic-humanistic ministry--from Todd Graff to Charles Stone III to Patrik Ian Polk whose film The Skinny paid a fitting, hilarious tribute to Langston Hughes that was sincere and memorable. Black Nativity is sincere but deserves to be forgotten.
Follow Armond White on Twitter at 3xchair