Film Review: “Black Nativity”

(Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight)
Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore

“Every person is an infallible being who has made a mistake which is worthy of forgiveness.”

In a modern version of (Harlem Renaissance, playwright) Langston Hughes’ widely celebrated musical turned movie drama, BLACK NATIVITY is the story of a happy and carefree teen named Langston (Jacob Latimore), who being raised by his single-mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson), is sent from his home in Baltimore to live with family Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) for Christmas in New York. A total stranger to his own family, confused and in the dark about who he is because of the dark secrets of his family’s past, Langston sets out on a journey of self-discovery.

Naima (Jennifer Hudson), is a single mom who has fallen into difficulty living in the inner city of Baltimore with her son Langston (Jacob Latimore). About to lose her home after receiving an eviction notice, Naima realizes she can no longer provide for the welfare of herself and her son due to her present circumstances, and decides to put him on a bus to Harlem, New York to spend Christmas with her parents. Although she has not spoken to her parents in years, it is obvious to Naima that they are the best choice to care for Langston while she gets her life together.

When he arrives in New York, Langston immediately begins to experience some of the cruel realities of life his mother has tried so hard to shield him from. Upon meeting his grandparents, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his caring wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) for the first time, Langston sets out on a mission to take matters into his own hands. After devising a scheme to help his mother get over the financial woes that have caused her to fall on hard times, Langston learns some key life-lessons after getting into an altercation with Tyson (Tyrese Gibson), which brings a turning point in the movie.

It is not an easy task to take a classic work, change it, and turn it into a work of art movie lovers can appreciate. Actress turned director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) pulls it off by staying true to the overall concept of the Langston Hughes’ classic, creatively bringing the past and present together to make it an entertaining screenplay for a contemporary audience. It’s a winning formula – and the end result is that the audience gets a musical treat where cast members deliver stellar performances within the storyline that resonate emotionally with the spirit of the season.

Singer/composer/musician/producer Raphael Saadiq proves his musical genius as composer for the movie’s soundtrack. With help from co-composer Laura Karpman, the musical score – an update from Langston Hughes’ earlier version with some much needed additions – pulls at the heartstrings and ushers in the joy of the Christmas holidays. Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker deliver surprise vocal performances. The intended tone of the movie, though, is set by Jennifer Hudson’s first solo “Test of Faith.” Her other songs at different intervals throughout the movie is indicative of her Oscar award winning performance on ‘Dreamgirls’. Mary J. Blige’s rendition of “Rise Up Shepherd” encapsulates the audience with an inspirational experience that will help this current soundtrack become a classic in its own right.

The movie conveys an underlying message that is rich in love, faith and forgiveness – and it is a great depiction of the overall message of what Christmas is all about. The lesson being, everyone is human and trying to make it. People make mistakes, but their mistakes should not be held against them for a lifetime. Sometimes it is best to let things go, forgive and love.

Not to be slighted, the movie celebrates African American history in a subtle but keen sense, and the need for traditional family values – which is the foundation of love.

In general, Black Nativity is a story of family triumph. When a family can come together in spite of differences, there is nothing that can defeat it. It is a wonderful movie that will leave you smiling.