Black Nativity undeniably has its merits, such as outstanding leads, impressive source material and a positive Christian message. Unfortunately, it’s also boring, which overrides everything else.
The musical tells the story of Langston (Jacob Latimore), a Baltimore teenager whose bleak existence is reflected in the washed-out colors of the early scenes. His father left when he was a toddler, and his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), can no longer make ends meet. Langston feels like a “motherless child” and wonders if his birth ruined his mother’s life. Facing eviction, Naima decides to send Langston to spend Christmas in New York City with her parents, Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) – the same parents she ran away from as a pregnant teenager.
Langston’s visit gets off to a rough start. Mere minutes after arriving, his backpack is stolen while he calls his grandparents from a pay phone. His attempt to use a hotel’s phone leads him to be arrested for stealing a wallet. Cornell bails him out and tells him, “Apparently I’m your grandfather.”
It’s quickly established that Cornell and Aretha basically know nothing about their daughter and grandson’s lives. Why the estrangement? Langston spends most of the movie trying to find out. Cornell may be unfamiliar with his descendants, but he’s very proud of his heritage, particularly a pocket watch he received from Martin Luther King Jr. Looking to raise money, Langston unsuccessfully tries to pawn the watch. A scene where a pawnbroker (Vondie Curtis-Hall) angrily rebuffs him is one of the few interesting points in the movie.
The plot seemed to move painfully slowly early in Black Nativity, but by the end the story felt rushed. It’s a rare movie that can do that. Perhaps that’s why there’s no interest in the characters: We haven’t seen them enough to get to know them. Whitaker, so powerful this summer in The Butler, is dull here. Bassett is also forgettable as a woman who apparently exists only to cater to the men in her life. The blame for that goes to a weak script, not these excellent actors. “Excellent” is not the word for young Jacob Latimore’s performance. He’s obviously a talented singer, but he doesn’t appear able to carry a movie. Jennifer Hudson, meanwhile, has too little screen time to make an impact.
When we’re finally taken to Cornell’s “Black Nativity” Christmas Eve mass nearly an hour into the movie, hope is stirred. This will surely be where we see some outstanding musical numbers, right? Wrong. The numbers here, as elsewhere in the movie, are well done on a technical level but simply don’t jump off the screen and excite the audience. The mass is notable only for a dream sequence in which Langston watches the baby Jesus be born to Mary and Joseph in a ghetto alley. Langston’s sleepy expression perfectly represents the feelings of people who’ve endured nearly 80 minutes of this material.
Sitting through a bad movie is never fun, but it’s even worse when the movie has its heart in the right place. Black Nativity is one of the very few “Christmas” movies to actually focus on the birth of Jesus, and it deserves praise for that. The themes of forgiveness and redemption are ones that many people, regardless of religious beliefs, can understand. But in the end, that’s just not enough to compensate for the many artistic shortcomings. The movie is based on Langston Hughes’ play Black Nativity (originally known as Wasn’t That a Mighty Day), which was first performed in the late 1950s and opened on Broadway in 1961. Producer Celine Rattray and director Kasi Lemmons worked to bring the play, long considered impossible to film, to the big screen. They should have left well enough alone.