Since I previously listed writer-director Kasi Lemmons' Black Nativity among my most-looked-forward-to movies of the season, I suppose I should say right up front that I was a little disappointed. But that's only because Black Nativity isn't quite the knockout holiday classic I hoped (and more than half expected) it would be. Still, never mind that: It's good—sweet, sincere, tuneful and lovingly presented.
Black Nativity (originally titled Wasn't It a Mighty Day) began as an off-Broadway musical written by the great poet Langston Hughes. As the title suggests, it told the story of the birth of Jesus in an African-American vernacular, incorporating traditional Christmas carols, gospel spirituals and original songs. A presentation of Hughes' oratorio at a Harlem church is the focus of Lemmons' movie, for which she provides a framing story that all but elbows Hughes entirely off the screen.
The movie centers on 15-year-old Langston Cobbs, named for the poet (and played by newcomer Jacob Latimore), who lives in Baltimore with his single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson). When Naima loses her job and the two of them face eviction, in desperation she sends Langston to Harlem in New York City to spend the holidays with her estranged parents: the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett), who haven't seen their daughter since before Langston was born.
Sullen and moody to begin with—early on, we see him stalking past a wall with the graffiti tag “Xmas sux,” and we half-suspect he spray-painted it there himself—Langston is resentful at being sent away when he believes his mother most needs his love and support. It doesn't help that no sooner does the bus drop him off in Times Square than someone swipes his backpack with all his money and belongings in it. When he tries to use the public phone in a nearby hotel, a misunderstanding over a wallet lands him in jail, where he broods under the gaze of another inmate named Loot (an excellent Tyrese Gibson), who disdainfully names him “Lunch Money.” Finally, he is able to contact his grandfather, who comes to bail him out.
When Langston arrives at the comfortable Harlem brownstone where the senior Cobbs live, even as Grandma Aretha leaps to nurture and comfort him, his resentment smolders anew at the thought of how he and his mother have had to struggle in Baltimore all his life with no help from them. “What kind of parents are you?” he barks at Grandpa Cornell. “The brokenhearted kind,” the old man replies. With that, Langston gets an inkling of how much he doesn't know about the history between his mother and his grandparents.
The movie culminates in that Christmas Eve service with Hughes' oratorio sung by the Rev. Cobbs' church choir (including Bassett and Whitaker themselves, quite creditably). Langston, in reluctant attendance, dozes off and dreams of the story set in Times Square (“Bank of Judea” and “Visit Gomorrah!” proclaim billboards). In his dream, a local homeless couple, Jo-Jo (Luke James) and the pregnant Maria (Grace Gibson) become the Joseph and Mary of the Nativity, with Mary J. Blige as the angel proclaiming the birth of their child.
It's in this scene that Black Nativity really takes flight, and hints at the classic we might have had if Kasi Lemmons had been a little bolder. As it is, her boldness in this sequence suggests a sort of riff on Jesus Christ Superstar, only with soul—and, of course, telling the other end of Jesus' life. Too soon, we are brought back to that Harlem church for a too-pat resolution of the Cobbs family's problems.
I admit, I wish Black Nativity had been better, with more moments like Latimore's rendition of “Motherless Child” on the bus to New York, or Hudson every time she sings, and with original songs less bland and generic than those supplied by Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman. But it's more than good enough. When it flies, it flies high, and when it doesn't, it has newbie Latimore and old pros Whitaker and Bassett (plus Tyrese Gibson and Vondie Curtis-Hall as a wise pawnbroker) to keep us engaged. An African-American Christmas movie this good is overdue; it's been a long time since Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston gave us The Preacher's Wife.