Black Nativity is a cut-rate musical melodrama that grafts overreaching references to black culture onto a facile family-values narrative. Though Langston Hughes’ poetry is quoted throughout, and his titular play serves as the backdrop for the movie’s climax, the film’s major influence appears to be its producer, megachurch mogul T.D. Jakes. (One assumes that Jakes, a homophobe of the “It’s not me, it’s Leviticus” variety, doesn’t believe that Hughes was gay.) Decades-long contrivances tear family members apart, soapy twists bring them back together, and everybody gets to listen to a literal sermon about the importance of forgiveness.
In the movie, a Baltimore teenager (Jacob Latimore) is sent to Harlem to spend Christmas with his estranged grandparents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett). The boy’s name is Langston, his grandparents are named Cornell and Aretha, and his mother (Jennifer Hudson) is named Naima, presumably after the classic John Coltrane cut. Martin Luther King Jr. is a plot point and Nas turns up for a few guest verses. Langston’s grandparents live right on 125th Street, and on the way to their house, he gawks at the marquee of the Apollo Theater. During a dream sequence, Mary J. Blige appears as an angel.
That’s a heavy pop-cultural load for any movie to bear, let alone one so indifferently made. The musical numbers, some of the ugliest in recent memory, resemble an unsigned singer’s YouTube channel. Single angles of the actors standing in one spot and lip-synching to subpar Raphael Saadiq tracks are intercut with doc-style shots of the surrounding area. Sometimes, a digital vignette is applied to create what high-school video-production students call “the film look.”
It’s equally sad and mind-boggling that all of thiswas directed by the once-promising Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou). Black Nativity’s only redeeming facet is its cast, chock full of actors trying to make the most of their severely underwritten roles. Whitaker’s antique Mid-Atlantic accent seems off-putting at first, but takes on a certain protective meaning when he drops it while preaching; Tyrese Gibson does finely tuned work as a small-time crook that Langston keeps running into; and Vondie Curtis-Hall has a small but memorable role as a pawnbroker. Viewers may be inspired to chalk up these performances as a minor victory for Lemmons—until, that is, they remember that she also wrote the script.