MRR Review: "Black Nativity"

Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

MRR Review: "Black Nativity"

Rating: PG (thematic material, language and a menacing situation)
Length: 93 minutes
Release Date: November 27, 2013
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
Genre: Drama, Musical

"Black Nativity" is the long-awaited film adaptation of the popular 1961 off-Broadway play of the same name. However, unlike most film adaptations of well-known musicals, "Black Nativity" deviates significantly from the original story, which was more like a collection of scenes as opposed to a tale with a beginning and an end. Even though it seems to be just another modern retelling of the classic nativity story, it's really much more. "Black Nativity" does stand out from the other usual nativity movies with a cast consisting almost entirely of African-Americans, but that's not the only reason this is such a unique movie. Jennifer Hudson of "American Idol" fame stars as Naima, an impoverished single mother in Brooklyn, New York, who is facing an inevitable eviction. She sends her unruly teenage son, Langston, to her parents' home to get him out of the situation. She also hopes her imposing father, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs, will straighten him out. After all, Naima is well aware of the danger her son is in as long as he chooses to associate with his old friends.

At the house of the Reverend Cornell and his wife, Aretha Cobbs, Langston finds himself entrenched in temptations related to his lifestyle, but he also discovers a wealth of interesting collectibles his grandparents have gathered to remember black history. Frustrated by the rules imposed by his strict grandfather, Langston becomes fixated on going back to his mother and his old habits. However, due in part to the stories behind his grandparents' collectibles, Langston embarks on a healing spiritual journey that leads him to decide it's up to him to reunite his broken family in time for the holidays.

"Black Nativity" features a heartwarming and realistic storyline peppered with incredible dream sequences and fantasy. In one dream sequence, American singer Mary J. Blige sings from a basketball court in white leather and angel wings about the birth of baby Jesus. Shepherds from the inner city rise in unison and, singing with her, move through the city toward the Christmas star shining in the sky. Jennifer Hudson lends her powerful voice to the film and helps create some of the most memorable songs in recent musicals. The entire soundtrack is a showcase of phenomenal talent that certainly does the original play justice, an impressive feat. Fascinating cinematography adds spice to the musical numbers, preserving the theatrical feel.

The cast that carries the heartwarming story is made up of a balanced blend of new and seasoned actors. Veteran actors Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett portray Reverend Cornell Cobbs and his wife. Jennifer Hudson has the role of Langston's mother, Naima. However, Langston is really the film's main character, and he is portrayed by Jacob Latimore, an unknown actor whose claim to fame was previously his YouTube music career. While Jacob Latimore did have a role in "Vanishing on 7th Street," a 2010 horror that took place in Detroit, hardly anyone knew about him prior to his casting in "Black Nativity." In spite of his lack of experience, Jacob Latimore's portrayal of Langston is flawless and ensures this won't be the young actor's last major film. Whitaker, Bassett, and Latimore have wonderful chemistry together and bring depth to the characters at the heart of the film. In spite of the rules Reverend Cornell Cobbs has for Langston, it's clear he really loves his grandson and wants what's best for him, and their relationship deepens as the story progresses. After all, Langston is just a lonely boy who has no father and is used to being the man of the house. With some guidance from his tough grandfather, Langston gets back on the path to living up to his full potential.

Even though "Black Nativity" may seem on the surface like it wasn't made for a diverse audience, this is a movie that anyone from any background can enjoy. It's also suitable for the whole family thanks to its relatively clean subject material, but young children might need some guidance during some of the more intense scenes where Langston is tempted by his troublesome former lifestyle. Thanks to its heartwarming story, fascinating dream sequences, talented cast members, and moving soundtrack, "Black Nativity" may become a Christmas classic right alongside "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life." The writer of the original 1961 play, Langston Hughes, would certainly be proud of this film adaptation.

Rating: 3 of 5