Friday, November 29, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW Black Nativity
Love, Faith, Family And Thanksgiving Forgiveness

Angela Bassett as Aretha Cobbs and Jacob Latimore as Langston in Kasi Lemmons' musical drama "Black Nativity".  Fox Searchlight
Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Friday, November 29, 2013

With its unabashed fervor "Black Nativity" shines as a contemporary musical drama.  Kasi Lemmons' film based on Langston Hughes' legendary play is a tonal poem of faith, family and forgiveness, perfect for the Christmas holiday season.  Ms. Lemmons also wrote the screenplay, which follows the journey of Langston (Jacob Latimore), the teenage son of Naima (Jennifer Hudson).  Facing eviction from her Baltimore home Naima sends Langston off to New York City to stay with the upper-middle class parents (Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker) she's estranged from.

Langston's initiation to New York is a night in jail after a misunderstanding.  He forms a tense alliance with Tyson (Tyrese Gibson), who calls him "lunch money".  There's palpable tension between the sullen Langston and the devout Reverend Cobbs.  Played by Mr. Whitaker in a manner similar to that of his preacher character in "The Great Debaters", Cobbs is a devout servant of the Lord.  Life in his Brooklyn brownstone demands a code of conduct that keeps Langston in check to an extent.  For all his Lord-abiding goodwill Reverend Cobbs is isolated by his confines, piety and an unwillingness to forgive Naima for running away from home. 

The subtext of "Black Nativity" seems to suggest that a father's absence in a son's life invariably leads to crime, but at every turn Langston's heart is in the right place as he navigates a city whose denizens include a homeless expecting couple named Jojo and Maria (Luke James and Grace Gibson).  They won't give up or believe that adverse circumstances define them.  Jojo and Maria are the film's anthem of persistence. 

Ms. Lemmons, the director of such evocative features as "Eve's Bayou" and "The Caveman's Valentine", brings a confluence of sepia-toned warmth and cool indigo blue-black grit to her new film.  The contrast and combination of these, lensed by Anastos Michos, is beautiful.  As a director Ms. Lemmons never shies from unearthing contradictions in very relatable characters to achieve a deeper emotional truth.  Here she does so through songs of hope and pain and a fluid directing style, augmenting the viewing experience without burying it in clichéd rationalizations or melodrama.  The trials and tribulations give "Black Nativity" richness, more so than its plastic-feeling church scenes do.

Earthy and raw, "Black Nativity" is an authentic portrayal of families and their challenges.  Aretha needs to reconnect with Naima to feel whole again.  Rev. Cobbs needs to drop the weight of unresolved issues from his shoulders.  Langston needs to find his own way but can't do it alone.  "God's grace is all around you," Aretha reassures Langston, in a moving moment.  At the heart of "Black Nativity" is the infectious gospel, hip-hop and R&B music celebrating the Holy Spirit.  Ms. Hudson, Mary J. Blige and others breathe their golden voices and hearts into a Big Apple wilderness that threatens to ensnare Langston.  Their voices of caution and urgency are like angels calling to save him, and us, from a distant and pro-forma drama. 

Ms. Bassett in particular is very good however, and it's regrettable she's not onscreen longer.  Ms. Hudson looks most comfortable when she does what she does best.  Mr. Latimore, whose Langston is on a troubled trek to understanding and making the right choices in his adolescent life, smolders with melancholy and anger, excelling in scenes with Oscar winners Hudson and Whitaker.

"Black Nativity", which opened in the U.S. and Canada on Wednesday, shows us the forgotten, the despised and those in need of help.  In Ms. Lemmons' capable hands Mr. Hughes' work comes to life on the big screen in an occasionally invigorating way but for all its endeavor it feels flat.  The film radiates a muted energy that shines on its characters and us in a sobering rather than joyous way. 

Also with: Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nasir "Nas" Jones.

"Black Nativity" is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association Of America for thematic material, language and a menacing situation.  The film's running time is one hour and 33 minutes.

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