For anyone who prefers their assertive homilies to crust over like a syrupy sweet, director Kasi Lemmons’s loose adaptation of Langston Hughes’s beloved holiday tradition, Black Nativity, will come on like a dream fulfilled. But borderline skeptics will more likely feel as though they’re touring the Stations of the Cross by way of the final reel of The Wiz played back in slow motion, as Lemmons never once flinches away from a chance to spread piety and grown-folks life lessons. Rather than actually restage the nativity itself, the film surrounds the Christmas Eve pageantry within a downbeat, modern musical.
Sullen Baltimore teen Langston (Jacob Latimore, assisted by Auto-Tune) and his single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), are about to be evicted from their one-bedroom home. After their lender serves them with an eviction notice just in time for the holidays, Naima sends Langston to stay with his grandparents, whom he has never met, up in Harlem, the implication being that his stay will be entirely open-ended. Some catastrophic domestic event in the past has estranged Naima from her parents, the Reverend Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), and in case it wasn’t clear before, this is one of those movies where just about every character’s name is a direct callback to some legendary cultural touchstone.
Though Langston’s backpack is predictably lifted the moment he steps off the bus in Times Square, and he’s mistaken for a thug when he tries to return a rich white man’s wallet, landing him in jail faster than the protagonist of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City,” Lemmons’s Harlem is portrayed as a rarified zone, where everyone knows and respects the Reverend, where pawn shops refuse hot merchandise, and where homeless, pregnant girls always have a smile on their face. It would be an urban paradise for Langston, but even though his grandparents lavish attention and gifts on him, he can’t help but resent their comfortable and spacious brownstone digs at a time when he and his mother are about to have the rug pulled out from under them. Feeling robbed of his familial foundation, and plainly lacking any sort of spiritual perspective, he seems destined to lash out with one bad life choice after another.
Lemmons puts an almost reverent emphasis on eternal struggles, which makes for a pretty tall order for an aspiring future Christmas classic. And even though she gets an able assist from musical coordinator Raphael Saadiq, Lemmons doesn’t ever establish a coherent strategy for staging her musical numbers. Some are waking fantasies, others are apparently meant to be happening on the level. The lengthy dream sequence Langston envisions while dozing through the Reverend’s Christmas Eve performance—featuring Nas rapping alongside the manger and Mary J. Blige in cellophane angel’s wings and a Phyllis Diller wig urging parishioners to get down—seems less a culmination of these disparate strands and more a capitulation to utter confusion, which then spills over into the strained “You are the father!” plot resolution. On the other hand, Black Nativity isn’t the sort of film built to satisfy logic, but instead wring your bleeding heart dry, which is why it makes as much sense as anything to swap out the original musical’s climactic reprise of “Go Tell It on the Mountain” with a buoyant closing yuletide chorus from Stevie Wonder’s “As.”