Black Nativity has certainly picked the right release date in that it arrives the day before Thanksgiving, and weeks before the Christmas holiday. It is a family movie that has it all, from soaring music to inspirational messages to a core story that is keenly about kin and how what tears us apart is pale in comparison to what can bring us all together.
Jacob Latimore is Langston, and yes, he is named after the writer who penned the play that shares the movie’s title. He lives in Baltimore with his mother (Jennifer Hudson) and things are not good. Despite working all she can, Hudson’s Naima cannot pay the rent and she is on the verge of being evicted. She decides to send her son to stay with his grandparents whom he has never met in Harlem -- Reverend Cornell Cobbs and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett).
Why has he never met them? As the film slowly lays out the reasons, the gist is that the reverend sent his teenage daughter packing when she came home pregnant, and through a series of misunderstandings and miscommunications, they have been estranged.
Langston is a study in contrasts as a character. On one hand, he is resentful towards his grandparents, and at the same time, he is drawn to them and curious as to their rich history (the reverend was mentored by Martin Luther King, Jr.). It is in Harlem that he also meets Tyson (Tyrese Gibson), a street smart pawn shop worker whom Langston too is drawn towards.
Through it all the various characters break into song, sometimes intertwining from different locales. The method, used by director Kasi Lemmons, is effective -- particularly any singing scene involving Hudson for obvious reasons. But in the middle of the film, the music simply seems to just go away and it’s as if the film cannot decide whether it wants to be a musical or a drama with music. But then in the final act, the music comes roaring back as our various dramatic storylines criss-cross towards their conclusion.
Whitaker is his usual awesome self (and is having quite a year with his work on The Butler), and Bassett impeccably captures the power of a woman who is living with regret, all within the scope of keeping a world rich with hope. Latimore makes a solid effort, although we wish he had used the power of facial expressions more in his singing.
Our Black Nativity review also finds that the film is an impressive holiday film, but often feels like it could be a TV movie with a superstar cast and super-stellar singing.