"Black Nativity" Review: Craig's First Take

Photo Credit: © 2013 - Fox Searchlight

One of the biggest problems with a cast that includes singers and actors is that the singers usually sing too well while the actors warble a bit but get the emotion down just right. Sometimes you get an exception, like a Tyrese Gibson (cast here), who can do both, sometimes you get a Jennifer Hudson (also here), who doesn’t seem to realize that her Oscar came from playing a singer, not being an actress.

Kasi Lemmons tries to adapt Langston Hughe’s off-broadway play into a screen musical that counts but the movie feels artificial and hollow, taking teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) from the mean streets of Baltimore and his mother (Hudson) to the upscale Harlem home of his estranged grandparents. While mom tries to work things out, Langston tries to discover what led to the rift between his mom and his Reverend Grandfather (Forrest Whittaker) and accommodating Grandma (Angela Bassett).

In what amounts to very little, Langston must decide whether to go straight or be a thieving thug; the answer is never even in question. What the film says about at-risk youth, the act of forgiveness, or a society where some are forced to deal with pregnancy and homelessness at the same time seems fairly negligible. Instead the film preaches faith but treats the struggle to maintain it like some run of the mill TV special. Real drama never approaches until the film’s last 10 minutes.

The music fails completely though, whether it’s Hudson failing to connect with a goodbye song to her son in the early going or Langston uselessly repeating the words “motherless child” in song. There’s also actors playing homeless people who sing with ludicrously awkward perfection and later a choreographed dance sequence only compounds the problem that this is probably way more interesting and exciting on stage than on the flat screen.

Whittaker and Bassett come off the best here, Latimore a little less so, Tyrese Gibson has a few good scenes as a random Harlem thug, but most of the other characters not at all. “Black Nativity” focuses much on the same things brought up by “Best Man Holliday” but it’s pretty clear early on which one is the more ambitious movie.