GRADE: 2 out of 5
A movie musical that wants to capture both African American spiritual tradition and present day urban struggle with family drama while trying to be entertaining at the same time. BLACK NATIVITY is quite ambitious, and it will speak well to its demographics. Laced with all-star cast that includes Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Mary J. Blige, and Tyrese Gibson, if this movie musical can be described in just two words, those two words would be, angry teen.
Based on Langston Hughes’ gospel musical that was performed on Broadway in 1961, the story is about a Baltimore teenage boy sent by his single mother to Harlem to spend Christmas with the grandparents he never met and through his grandpa’s sermon, he learns the importance of faith and family. Hudson plays the mother who hasn’t spoken to her father ever since she got pregnant. Bassett and Whitaker play the boy’s estranged grandparents, Aretha Cobbs and Rev. Clarence respectively.
I don’t know what the rule of thumb is for a movie to be able to be officially considered musical, does it have to have 80% of its dialogues done in a form of song and dance number? If you see Grease, The West Side Story and last year’s Les Miserables, each of them has their own ratio but BLACK NATIVITY, for the most part, to me, feels more like a straight up drama but with a few MTV-type music videos in between. So if you’ve come to this film because you’re a hardcore musical fan, I’m not sure your thirst would be quenched. There is however, the story, which I think is relevant and one that I think many youngsters from troubled homes out there can easily identify with. BLACK NATIVITY in itself is a new incarnation of the 1060s experience by poet Langston Hughes. Even the lead character, young angry teen is named after Langston, the character’s name is Langston Cobbs. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons has a clear vision, to make a movie musical that’s spirit-filled. Not necessarily preachy or religious, but uplifting for its audience.
A teen angry because life has been unfair to him and his mother. He finds himself in the care of his estranged grandparents who seem to have everything but he can’t understand why they wouldn’t help him and his mom and at the same time there are questions of his dad’s whereabouts. It’s a familiar fatherless child story. Parents who disagree at their daughter’s choice for a man. A father who’d do anything to keep his daughter from who he thinks is her biggest mistake. A decision from the past that affects the grandchild’s life years after. And then to have it all spilled out in public, in church of all places. One can even jokingly say that BLACK NATIVITY is like a bad episode of Maury show. The film’s part where it depicts its own Joseph-Mary-baby Jesus story set in present day in a big city, is nothing short of intriguing, I think a few of the cast members do not get a fair time of singing. I think the film can be more elaborate and creative in its choreographies and there’s just not enough cinematic feel to it, but its stage play format might as well be Tyler Perry approved. BLACK NATIVITY is not a movie only for black audiences but I don’t think it does enough to satisfy general audiences who genuinely love musical.