Forest Whitaker tries to advice his grandson (Jacob Latimore) in "Black Nativity." Credit: Fox Searchlight
'Black Nativity' Director: Kasi Lemmons Stars: Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker Rating: PG 3 (out of 5) Globes
Not a lot of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” winds up in “Black Nativity,” and that’s fine. The source was itself a reworking of existing material — the birth of Jesus — for a gospel setting. The film version goes much further: It’s present day, but the Christ business is more a backdrop. It’s not even baby Jesus who’s honored. It’s Hughes. The lead character, played by teen R&B singer Jacob Latimore, is actually named Langston, and he’s constantly, by everyone, being told about the importance of Hughes’ work.
This Langston is a Baltimore youth whose mom (Jennifer Hudson) can no longer provide for him. For at least Christmas, she decides to pack him off to her long-estranged parents: the Stern Reverend Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who presides over a Harlem church, and his much warmer wife (Angela Bassett). Langston is both innocent and desperate, and he can’t decide whether to listen to his grandfather’s gnomic utterances about black history or turn to, shall we say, more direct ways of fixing his mother’s financial problems. And it’s also a part-time musical.
This is an unwieldly film, both ambitious and too modest, bold and sloppy. The musical aspects aren’t always smoothly integrated, and not just because Whitaker really, really doesn’t look like he wants to sing, as he’s forced to do briefly and weakly.
But sincerity wins out in the end. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons — whose “Eve’s Bayou” wound up at the top of Roger Ebert’s 1997 Top Ten list — wants to use Hughes to reflect on the modern day black experience, and do without the need to make it palatable for white audiences. She wants to talk about class not overall but amongst the black community, where some struggle on the streets while others live in lavish, ornate brownstones.
That the token homeless couple (Grace Gibson and Luka James) are pretty — very distractingly, amusingly pretty — is atoned for by the number they do. Not all the songs are memorable, but the acting, by the non-singers in the cast, are excellent. Whitaker works in notes of self-doubt and melancholy into what could have been a one-note authority figure. And Tyrese Gibson and Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall, get a couple commanding scenes a piece.
This is a movie about the importance of family and faith; it even has T.D. Jakes as a producer. But even with a church-set climax, it doesn’t necessarily proselytize, and even questions whether faith and family are always reliable. It’s not a smooth production, but the world is better for it existing.