“…the presence of pop culture stars such as Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Nas, only add to the overly-glossy, bombastic nature of the film as a whole.”
I was buying most of what Kasi Lemmons’ adaptation of Langston Hughes’ poem Black Nativity was selling, admiring its inclusion of common problems facing the black community and the treacherous circumstances many face, until it basically solves the most unprecedented conflict by basically saying the words “forgiveness” and “be grateful” over and over again.
There are two common problems I see with films bearing a heavy religious denouement. One is they are out of touch with realism, making the villains out to be cliche, evil archetypes and the moral souls innocent angels, portraying their way of religious righteousness to be the only path to live ones’ life successfully. The other is that they become overbearing in their message, hamming home personal ideology or tired Christian philosophy, turning their films into feature-length lectures rather than films and making their characters cheap vessels for their ideology. Black Nativity‘s immediate issue is that it’s a mixture of both, but at the same time, a vast oversimplification of conflicts and contemporary issues in the typical African-American family. While the issues stretch a mile wide, the film gives them maybe five inches.
The film concerns teenage Langston (played by the talented young Jacob Latimore), named after the famous poet, who I remember religiously studying and adoring back in fourth grade. Langston is having serious family issues with an absent father and a struggling mother (Jennifer Hudson), who sends him to live with his grandparents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) in the big city for the time being. Langston is a pretty secular kid, which is frowned upon by his grandparents, who feel that he is in dire need of a moral compass.
Interrupting myself, this is another reason that turns me off from these films. It’s unfair to constantly portray somebody who doesn’t have any particular religion as a heathen or a “lost” youth in society. Or even worse, a societal degenerate who constantly meanders between controlled to unpredictable. The act itself is shortchanging to the fact that just because one has a religion they cling to doesn’t immediately make them a good person all around; or even superior to non-believers.
Moreover, young Langston still has issues with his absent father, which the film doesn’t hesitate to rightly amplify as this being a huge issue in the black community, next to drug-dependency and the birth of children out-of-wedlock. However, he finds interest in the mysterious, petty street thug Tyson (Tyrese Gibson), who Langston meets in prison for a misunderstanding involving a lost wallet. Armed with his cold honesty and his grandparents’ reliance on the church’s teachings, Langston receives an experience of divine intervention he’ll never forget. On the contrary, the likelihood we, the audience member, will forget this particular film is pretty high.
As stated, Black Nativity (which I may add is produced by the famed Bishop T.D. Jakes) is another religious movie that feels that by repeating such words as “forgiveness,” “gratefulness,” and “blessed” is a way of solving a serious problem. What writer/director Kasi Lemmons forgets is that the aforementioned words are easily devalued, and using them roughly twenty times in the last fifteen minutes of the film, when the conflict escalates into absurd and irreparable heights, is not a particularly wise decision; especially when the conflict is as serious and disgusting as it is…
It’s also worth noting that the presence of pop culture stars such as Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige (an angel in church), and Nas only add to the overly-glossy, bombastic nature of the film as a whole. Black Nativity has a considerable heart, and gets points for at least having a will and ambition to recognize harsh problems facing the black community in general, but it’s far too shortchanging and plagued by the niceness of its own conclusion.
When it comes to holiday films boasting an ensemble cast made up largely of black talents, I can only hope A Madea Christmas is better, and when that happens, one can only sense my lack of faith for a particular genre in film.
Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic