Towering pieces of work, be they literary, theatrical or cinematic, are often subject to reincarnation in a variety of mediums, such is their enduring quality. Originally a stage play created by Harlem Renaissance figure Langston Hughes, Black Nativity (2013) is the latest example of this frequent occurrence. Whilst writer and director Kasi Lemmons should be commended for being able to retain the essence of the classic narrative, the 21st century update suffers from extremely heavy-handed execution, ultimately resulting in that fact that his film doesn’t resonate quite as well as it might have done given its seasonal release.
Black Nativity centres on Baltimore native Langston (Jacob Latimore), a streetwise teen whose financially troubled mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) sends him to NYC to spend Christmas with his estranged grandparents Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett). Immediately butting heads with Cornell’s strict values and desperate to return home, ‘divine intervention’ helps him understand past familial events, healing spiritual wounds in the process. Themes such as redemption and forgiveness are ones that will never lose their power. The big emotions on display feel like a conscious decision on the part of the filmmakers, but the approach fails more often than it succeeds.
It all comes to a head in the incredulous final fifteen minutes. Even though the principal (and poignant) message of forgiveness eventually wins through, the melodrama endured to get there is a high price to pay. It’s a tall order to carry any film, doubly so in a film such as this, and though Latimore proves his talent in the musical numbers his character is a hard one to engage with and get behind. That’s not necessarily down to the performance per se, but some of the decisions that Lemmons’ screenplay has Langston making are overly rash.
The more experienced actors fare much better. Whitaker is by far the standout, bringing quiet gravitas to the devout reverend, and he is perfectly complemented by Bassett’s warm-hearted Aretha. Both do a solid job in the musical segments, though as you might expect it is industry veterans Mary J. Blige and Jennifer Hudson whose vocals soar in these melodic interludes. If you can ignore Black Nativity’s heavy-handedness, there’s enjoyment to be found in this admirable, though flawed effort.