Christmas films: ‘Black Nativity’ now on DVD

Starring Forest Whitaker as Reverend Cornell Cobbs, the film version of Langston Hughes' “Black Nativity” gives a realistic urban feel to what is a familiar storyline about love, loss and misplaced pride.

Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore.
Naima and Langston (Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore) are having a rough Christmas season. (Fox Searchlight.)

WASHINGTON, December 25, 2014 – For those looking for something unique to view this holiday season, the vintage 2013 Christmas film to choose might just be Fox Searchlight’s “Black Nativity.”

This movie update of Langston Hughes’ original musical drama offers something very different from the usual network pap churned out by TV networks and cable channels. It’s geared toward black American audiences, but it’s really a film for everyone. And now it’s available as a DVD thru Netflix, Amazon, and other outlets as well.

The film arrived to mixed reviews last year, but that’s often to be expected for something that’s refreshingly new. Even better, in this holiday musical, Jennifer Hudson’s singing and acting have never seemed more beautiful and natural as she simply steals every scene.

Originally a play written by Langston Hughes in 1961 (hence the naming of Naima’s son), “Black Nativity” loosely moors itself to its source material. Its updating of Mr. Hughes’ work includes a song in the first act critiquing capitalism and extolling the values of a non-materialistic life with a modern-day Joseph and Mary (played by Luke James and Grace Gibson).

Starring Forest Whitaker as Reverend Cornell Cobbs, “Black Nativity” gives a realistic urban feel to what is a familiar storyline about love, loss and misplaced pride. As the film progresses, we learn that Reverend Cobbs’ daughter, Naima (portrayed by Hudson), ran off from Harlem some time ago as an unwed, pregnant teenager. Now, just before Christmas, Naima finds herself losing her Baltimore home to foreclosure and has no place to raise her now-teenage son, Langston.

Langston (played by Jacob Latimore) has been hardened by a life without a father and without even his estranged grandparents (played by Whitaker and Angela Bassett) until he is dispatched to New York City to live with them.

In “Black Nativity,” the very welcome Bassett hits all the right notes as a loving Grandma longing for a grandchild to love and spoil. Her performance reminds you of just why she is one of the best actresses of her generation. Whitaker’s performance Reverend Cobbs does not quite find him at the top of his game. But he does a nice job playing a Pastor doing everything he can to save his struggling Congregation while devoting his energies to his annual Christmas Concert/Revival and to a grandson he’s never really known.

This is not a perfect film by any means, though, largely due to the typical Hollywood insistence on shoving gratuitous and obvious socio-political propaganda into a perfectly good Christmas morality tale. For example, when it comes to the nativity story embedded in the main narrative line, this film’s social justice warriors take it and pound it into the ground.

In addition, the filmmakers made an unfortunate choice to indulge in political product placement by making sure a large “Elect Obama” campaign sticker is prominently displayed on a refrigerator during an opening shot inside the Cobbs’ home. Granted, even in 2013, there is a better than average chance an old 2008 sticker might be found on the refrigerator. But it seems as if this shot is an unnecessary intrusion, an attempt at squeezing in a little more political propaganda that’s already out of date.

To be sure, this doesn’t exactly ruin the film. But it does break that dramatic fourth wall, taking the viewer out of the film and back into the constant politicization of our daily life. And that’s a shame because unless a film is directly related to politics, we usually go to the movies to be entertained and enjoy some fantasy or adventure for a couple of hours, especially during a Christmas or holiday film.

Even with those missteps, Director Kasi Lemmons has done a good job blending such talented performers and the storyline into a musical that isn’t overly “musical.” Thankfully, “Black Nativity” has more story and dialogue than musical numbers, and this actually helps to make its songs more enjoyable while creating a greater, more memorable impact.

However, some of these musical numbers work better than others. While the Jesus and Mary characters may seem as if they were stolen from a staging of “Rent,” the rest of the cast admirably rise to the occasion. Tyrese Gibson is highly effective in his scenes as Tyson as does Vondie Curtis-Hall who plays the cagey, seen-it-all Harlem pawnshop owner.

The only weak link in the cast is Mr. Latimore’s “Langston.” He doesn’t offer the audience much expressive range beyond his ability to glower consistently, radiating his “I’m a tough guy” look. It’s hard to tell whether this was his choice or the director’s—or if, in fact, this is all he’s got to offer. Hopefully, he’ll have a chance to show more range in future movie roles.

Given the tough economic straits that many American households still find themselves in this year, and regardless of current government happy talk to the contrary, “Black Nativity” is well worth your holiday season time and money, assuming you’d like to purchase the DVD. (Otherwise, you can rent it via your Netflix subscription.)

That’s because the overwhelmingly positive ideal of reuniting family and putting past differences aside at Christmas is a positive message for everyone.

 (Official film trailer below.)

Rating: ** ½ (2.5 out of 4 Stars)

(Original version of this review contributed by Kevin Williams.)

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