By Gary Murray

Starring Forest Whittaker, Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson

Written by Langston Hughes and Kasi Lemmons

Directed by Kasi Lemmons

Running time 93 min

MPAA Rating PG

Selig Film Rating: Cable


The musical has been around for almost as long as there has been cinema.  It truly fell out of grace in the late 1960s but still keeps a toe-hold on the cinema experience.  Les Miserables, Chicago and Rock of Ages have all been recent films that started on the Great White Way.  The latest film to try and scale this mountain is Black Nativity

The film starts out in Baltimore with a mom and son.  Langston (Jacob Latimore) lives with his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) but has no relationship with any other member of his family.  It seems that mom has been estranged from her family since before Langston can remember.  The family has fallen on hard times and mom sends Langston to New York City for the Christmas holiday.  Almost immediately, the young man gets in trouble and is thrown in jail. 

Eventually he meets his grand parents, Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha (Angela Bassett).  They try to accept the child into their world but it is very difficult.  All the kid wants to do is get back to his mother.  He has no connection to his family.  Eventually, Langston steals a prized possession from the Reverend and tries to pawn it.  Even the owner of the pawn shop knows who item belongs to and refuses to take it. 

The story is of how Langston begins to understand the ramifications of his family dynamic and how events that happened before he was born impact his life.   He is the angry young man who learns how to love.  Along the way to this realization, there is much song and a bit of dancing.

That is one of the major problems with the film.  The songs don’t have a hook, they just ramble along.  After the film was over, I failed to remember even one tune from the last ninety minutes.  The songs become lost in the ether of the cosmos without making any impact on the audience.  A musical should have music that is memorable and Black Nativity fails to this jump this hurdle. 

Even though the film is a scant 90 minutes, it drags along.  The work is based on a play by Langston Hughes.  It probably worked better as a play than a cinematic musical.  So much of the film is challenging but not challenging in a good way.

The last third of the film goes into a surreal telling of the tale of the Christ birth.  Where this may have worked on the boards of a stage, it doesn’t translate that well to the cinema.  The ending has a big reveal that is not that much of a surprise, telegraphed well in advance.  The message of “Be grateful for everything you get” is almost beaten into the ground.  It is very over-handed in its message almost to the point of detriment. 

Angela Bassett still looks wonderful but almost looks lost in the proceedings.  Her subtle reading is the only fresh voice in the film.  Forrest Whittaker and Jennifer Hudson chew every bit of the screen in a plethora of overacting.  They mug and play to the camera in such a way that it almost becomes a parody of the musical.  Both are good actors but they both needed a stronger director to tone them down. 

The entire film boils down to the director.  Kasi Lemmons was at the helm of Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine and Talk to Me.  All of them are interesting works but here it is just too much.  She never finds the right beat to make the film work

Though the film is well-acted in the secondary characters, it is not well executed.  All of the major talents have done better projects.  This is a Thanksgiving film that will be gone and forgotten by Christmas. 

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