2013 has been a fantastic year for black cinema.
12 Years a Slave, Fruitvale Station, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler all have legitimate shots at racking up some major hardware as awards season approaches. 42 was a compelling sports biopic, The Best Man Holiday proved a welcome balance of comedy and drama and Kevin Hart’s Let Me Explain was a hilarious stand-up film. The latest mainstream release likely won’t be held in such high esteem.
Just in time for the holidays comes the musical Christmas-theme drama Black Nativity featuring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson. While it won’t make the naughty list, the film is a little too underwhelming to make part of your festivities.
Facing eviction just before the holidays, Naima (Hudson) sends her teenage son, Langston (Jacob Latimore), to live with her estranged parents, Rev. Cobbs (Whitaker, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and Aretha Cobbs (Bassett, Olympus Has Fallen) in New York.
Neither Langston nor his grandparents know exactly what to make of their newly-introduced relative. Director/Screenwriter Kasi Lemmons — modernizing Langston Hughes’s classic play —writes the characters in broad strokes with little depth or room to develop as the film progresses.
Langston simply wants to return to Baltimore while his grandparents are overly polite and dance around his questions about why they’re no longer involved in Naima’s life.
Partly due to the limitations of the role, Latimore gives a very one-dimensional performance. He’s either scowling or seething and struggling mightily to convey any other emotion. His lack of range is especially noticeable near the ending when we should see some change from his initial mindset upon meeting his grandparents.
Whitaker and Bassett similarly have little to work with, but their experience allows them more insight in how to give their characters little nuances that aren’t specifically indicated in the script. They provide their typically reliable performances and prove surprisingly proficient in handling their singing responsibilities.
Lemmons builds up the reason for the estrangement so much that it becomes a Maury Povich-esque twist by the film’s credibility-stretching conclusion.
In his travels around the big city, Langston has encounters with the mysterious Tyson (Tyrese Gibson, Fast & Furious 6), who takes an unusual interest in him; the kindly stranger Angel (Mary J. Blige, Rock of Ages) and the laid-back Street Prophet (hip-hop star Nas).
Lemmons sticks to an intimate, tighter camera perspective for most of the film that would be just right for a stage performance, but is too limited for a movie.
The musical numbers are awkwardly shot as well, with many of them resembling an average music video and lacking that seamless transition from song to spoken dialogue found in the higher-end musical dramas.
Regardless of technical limitations or script deficiencies, the one thing you’d reasonably expect in a musical is that the songs will carry the film along. Dreamgirls wasn’t a particularly strong musical drama, but Hudson almost singlehandedly made it required viewing with her riveting rendition of “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which not only made her a household name, but netted her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.
Nativity’s soundtrack isn’t nearly as memorable. Hudson more than holds up her end on the six songs she performs, Blige has two decent songs and Latimore and Nas have a creative rap/song collaboration, but the only one likely to remain in your head is the rendition of Stevie Wonder’s classic “As.”
“Black Nativity” is flawed, but at its core, the film has a welcome message of forgiveness and the importance of family. Had the execution been tighter, it would be an easy recommendation, but as is, there’s no need to rush off from Thanksgiving leftovers to see it.
Rating: 3 out of 10
Photo Credit: Cameron Cook/Fox Searchlight Pictures
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