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Review: Black Nativity (2013)

Black Nativity (2013)

Directed by: Kasi Lemmons

Premise: A musical adaptation of the play by Langston Hughes. A financially struggling single mother (Jennifer Hudson) sends her teenage son (Jacob Latimore) to live with her estranged parents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett) for the holidays.

What Works: Black Nativity was written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, who had previously made notable but frequently underappreciated pictures such as Eve’s Bayou and Talk to Me. Lemmons is a skilled director, capable of very energetic pictures with interesting and unusual visuals. Black Nativity shows some of that skill, especially in the musical sequences. Filmmakers of movie musicals often alternate their cinematic style between the songs and the dramatic parts of the film. In Black Nativity the style is generally consistent and the film slips in and out of the music in a way that makes the songs a part of the diegesis of the picture. The end of the film has a dream sequence that is especially well done. Black Nativity is also a unique picture in the movie marketplace. Aside from being primarily cast with actors of color and dealing earnestly with religious themes, Black Nativity is also unironically hopeful. That earnestness will find a receptive audience among those looking for something that delivers the kind of sentimental, feel-good story many viewers crave during the holidays.

What Doesn’t: Black Nativity benefits from the absence of competition in the musical and religious film genres right now but the movie is lacking in some fundamental ways. The picture is supposed to be a musical but it does not have enough music in it. Black Nativity only contains a handful of songs and none of them are memorable. The music does not drive the story nor does it reveal anything about the characters and their situations. The musical sequences were clearly looped in post-production and it is distractingly obvious on screen as the quality of the sound does not match the film and the audio is frequently out of synch with the actors’ lip movements. But even more detrimental to Black Nativity are all of the problems with its story. The film suffers from a variety of narrative missteps but the most critical flaw is that so little actually happens. The picture gets off to a fine start but when the teenage protagonist arrives at his grandparent’s home the plot essentially stops. The story does not go anywhere and the bulk of the film has no rising action. In place of plotting, Black Nativity has a series of absurd coincidences and disconnected events. When the picture does set up conflicts, complications, and character flaws, the filmmakers immediately reverse or ignore them. This is most apparent in the teenager, played by Jacob Latimore, and the grandfather, played by Forest Whitaker. Latimore’s character is distrustful but he doesn’t have a criminal disposition. When Black Nativity reaches its climax the filmmakers force the teen into a violent scenario that is completely out of character and then rob that scenario of all of its potency with incredulous storytelling choices that absolve any potential consequences. The grandfather, played by Forest Whitaker, is a preacher whose pride has fractured his family and his daughter, played by Jennifer Hudson, has raised her son alone. The movie never makes Whitaker’s character confront his own flaws. As a result, the inevitable rehabilitation of the preacher is not convincing and the reunification of the family has no emotional resonance. And that may be the biggest flaw of Black Nativity; the filmmakers reach for the kind of emotional and spiritual vigor of holiday stories like A Christmas Carol but because the music fails to carry the spirit and the storytelling fails to create adequate human drama, Black Nativity is unable to deliver the kind of authentic and redemptive spiritual experience that the filmmakers promise.

Bottom Line: There isn’t very much in theaters these days for viewers who are seeking a religious story or musical entertainment. Because of that absence, Black Nativity manages to fill a void in the movie marketplace but the picture isn’t very good and holiday audiences deserve better.

Episode: #468 (December 8, 2013)