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Film Review: Black Nativity

Written by Michael Dequina
Nov 2013 ©

I know you don’t believe a word I say, but today I’m not lying. I cannot forgive myself for what I did to you. Only you have the right to do that. But I hate myself, and I will keep hating myself as long as I live… ”

I hate making reductive comparisons, most especially in relation to  so-labelled urban films, as the mainstream movie media too often lazily and  ignorantly resorts to them. (Read, or better yet *don’t*, for instance,  any mixed-to-negative review of The Best Man Holiday to vividly illustrate my point.) That said, watching Kasi Lemmons’s holiday musical inspired by the Langston Hughes holiday perennial play Black Nativity couldn’t help but reinforce my feeling that Tyler Perry’s one key miscalculation in nearly all of his very loose film adaptations of his stage plays is the consistent choice to remove the song numbers. Not for nothing did he first build his fervent audience on the stage and that his theatre work still generally works a lot better than his work in other media (though he has shown growth): his plot lines and characters all generally operate in the realm of archetype, but once voices are raised in soaring, rafter-raising melodies, the broad narrative strokes are suddenly, powerfully infused with palpable, urgent emotion and genuine, relatable soul.

How does this relate to Black Nativity exactly? Lemmons adapts that approach quite effectively in a cinematic context for her take on the Hughes play, which in its original form for the stage is exactly what the title suggests: a more gospel-infused take on the Nativity story, and less of a set-in-stone libretto than a general guiding framework for any director and performance troupe to express their own individual creativity. Lemmons takes both principles to heart, crafting her own original story to contextualize an in-narrative production of Black Nativity–an original story that also falls within the traditional modern gospel play mold of a fairly simple, on-the-nose story. When her financial struggles become too much to bear, a single mom (Jennifer Hudson) in DC sends her teenage son (Jacob Latimore) to live with her estranged parents, a preacher (Forest Whitaker) and his prototypical church lady wife (Angela Bassett), in Harlem  for the holiday season.

On that most basic level, this isn’t anything new, a hugs ‘n healing holiday heart-warmer for the whole family. And while this is handily her most generally accessible film to date, Lemmons affirms her maverick status by boldly, unapologetically embracing the undiluted gospel play spirit on the screen in a way never quite fully done before, and from early on the results touch an intangible black-nativity-jacob-latimore-teaser640nerve the way any movie musical uniquely should. Hudson’s farewell to Latimore is a key emotional moment on its face, but it’s taken to a new level of weight with the heartbreaking ballad (one of a number of original compositions by Raphael Saadiq, in collaboration with Lemmons), and the rest of the film follows suit. Whether they be quieter moments like a gorgeously harmonized duet-across-distance between Hudson and Bassett or more elaborate pieces like a full-blown Nativity play production number that beautifully incorporates one of Hughes’s major stage hallmarks–dance–or my personal favourite number, the at once contemporary and classic “Hush Child (Get You Through the Night),” performed by Hudson, Latimore, and Grace Gibson and Luke James (as the modern day Mary and Joseph avatars), even the must programmatic of scenes and plot points are taken to an elevated plane by the passion of and in the music.

But like its genre counterparts on the stage, the film remains decidedly earthbound when it is not literally singing.  Thankfully the presence and abilities of solid actors such as Whitaker (who reveals a stunningly smooth singing voice), Bassett, Hudson, and promising newcomer Latimore lend the proceedings some real grounding even when Lemmons’s script falls into more contrived, conventional, and/or melodramatic trappings, particularly in its overblown non-sung climax of uber-dramatic reveals and confrontations.  But for all the bluster of those moments, what drowns them out and lingers more strongly in the memory and heart is, as it should be, the sweet, celebratory sensation of song.


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