Film Title: Black Nativity
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson
Running Time: 92 min
This largely awful, tediously pious African-American musical claims some connection to Langston Hughes’s divine musical of the same name. Something of a crossover success in the early 1960s, Black Nativity incorporated spirituals and hymns into a retelling of the Christmas story.
Bits of Hughes’s work sneak into the current Black Nativity, but the film has more in common with that old Pat Boone bible thumper, The Cross and the Switchblade: young tearaway has to decide between a life of crime and baby Jesus; he picks baby Jesus; young audience vomits and turns away from God forever. You know the sort of thing.
Langston (Jacob Latimore), our young protagonist, born to poverty-stricken Jennifer Hudson, is forced to move from Baltimore to Harlem just a few days before Christmas. After some misunderstandings, he is united with his grandfather, a preacher, and his grandmother, a gibbering ninny.
Forest Whitaker plays the former as a soul-crushing combination of the Simpsons’ Reverend Lovejoy and a recently woken, easily annoyed bear. Angela Bassett is so criminally underused as his fussy wife that she could be easily replaced by a wig on a standard lamp.
The film is enormously boring in its reverence for icons and locations. The poet is referenced as “the Great Langston Hughes”. Martin Luther King appears as a sort of invisible guardian. Harlem is re-imagined as a cosy collection of tidy brown hearths.
This is not to suggest there’s anything wrong with such respect for African-American heritage. But Black Nativity feels awfully cosy when set beside the noisy creativity that characterised Hughes’s celebrated Harlem Renaissance.
The rap is weedy. The soul is stripped of any sex. The ballet-dancing hoodlums from West Side Story seem more authentic than any of the criminals here. Not worthy of release.