Although Kasi Lemmons’ new film Black Nativity credits Langston Hughes as one of the writers, due to his 1961 play of the same name, the two works have little in common. Hughes’ play is an annual church staple, a Christmas pageant about Jesus’ birth packed with gospel songs strung together with Hughes’ clipped, direct prose. Lemmons’ Black Nativity is a different sort of pageant: a modern family melodrama about a teenager named after Hughes, learning about his own troubled family history. And it’s a different sort of musical: Like the play and film Passing Strange, it’s character history filtered through musical history, with the songs comprising a pocket survey of African-American music, from spirituals to gospel to R&B ballads to rap.
Seventeen-year-old rapper/actor Jacob Latimore (Vanishing On 7th Street) plays Langston, a soulful but angry teenager whose father disappeared when he was a baby, and who shares a close, protective bond with his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), who works multiple jobs to make ends meet. When a $5,000 shortfall means they may be evicted at Christmas, Naima sends Langston to spend the holidays with her parents, whom he’s never met: stern preacher Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and nervous Aretha (Angela Bassett), who live in a richly appointed New York brownstone so full of art evoking African-American traditions that the stunned Langston declares it “like a museum, a black-people museum.” Neither Naima nor her parents will explain to Langston why they haven’t spoken to each other during his lifetime, and as he pushes all three of them for an explanation, he gets progressively angrier, until he’s driven to dangerous desperation.
Latimore is at times a clumsy, broad actor, and he’s most convincing when he’s singing rather than talking, whether he’s rapping about his life or crooning modern reworkings of traditional songs like “Motherless Child.” But Lemmons’ tightly woven conflicts still turn him into a compelling, painful conundrum that holds the film together. Like his namesake, Langston is divided between pride, anger, and a compulsion for justice. (Late in the film, a character sees how the boy’s rage is curdling, and recites Hughes’ “A Dream Deferred” to him in response.) In Lemmons’ story, Langston is further torn by his fury over his mother for sending him away, his desire to protect her and their life together by coming up with that arbitrary $5k, his loyalty to her against his grandparents, and his desire to uncover his own identity. Further complicating the issue, the Reverend Cobbs is both a difficult, hard-to-approach man and a much-admired, compassionate pillar of his community. He clearly wants to bond with his grandson, but can’t bend enough to make himself emotionally vulnerable. Meanwhile, Aretha is a warm, loving soul who wants to mend fences with her daughter, but dutifully defers to her husband.
All these visible internal conflicts make for a rich emotional tapestry, but the mystery of Langston’s history is more much compelling than the reveal, which comes late and gets handled with all the heartstring-yanking bombast Lemmons can muster. First, it’s sidelined during a long sequence where Langston dozes off during a church pageant and dreams a version of the Nativity, with a young, deeply impoverished local couple as Mary and Joseph, and a wild-wigged parishioner (Mary J. Blige) as the angel dispensing tidings of great joy through song. Then, in a particularly stagey and shameless touch, the inevitable family confrontation plays out in the middle of a packed church, where pews full of onlookers provide a nonstop series of loud gasps, grumbles, and coos of group approval.
Again, the movie works best during the many musical sequences, which come courtesy of producer Raphael Saadiq. He and Lemmons take full advantage of Hudson’s vocal skills, bringing her in on virtually every song, even though her character is physically absent for most of the movie. But the whole cast gets in on the act, including Nas in a shoehorned-in but powerful musical cameo. At the same time, Hudson’s actual character is hugely neglected; her motives are never clear, which is odd, given how her choices drive the film’s action. It seems equally possible that Naima deliberately sent Langston to her parents out of sheer mercenary need, out of compassion for him, or out of homesickness for them, but the film never makes her enough of a character to get under her skin. Her melancholy, like so many of the film’s intensely broadcast emotions, is fuel for song, rather than for a fully realized story. But while Black Nativity often lacks polish and restraint, at least it never lacks for soul.