Christmas films are trundling into multiplexes between California and Copenhagen, as is customary during this time of year, and Black Nativity is the latest offering to the already oversaturated genre. Kasi Lemmons’ fourth feature film is unique in that it features only African-American actors in a cinematic reimagining of Langston Hughes’ gospel cabaret of the same name.
Langston Cobbs (Jacob Latimore) is a teenage miscreant who lives with his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore. Money is tight for the pair and when an eviction notice is sent to their house, Naima decides to send him to her parent’s Manhattan home over Christmas – despite her long-standing estrangement from her mother and father.
Langston feels alienated in New York and is instantly suspicious of his kindly grandparents, the reverend Cornell Cobbs and Aretha Cobbs, played by Forrest Whitaker and Angela Bassett respectively. He is lost without his mother and is saddened that his older relatives are living in relative opulence whilst Naima will have to work over the Christmas holidays. Family demons and the black American community are the focus as the film canters to the “black nativity” service crescendo on Christmas Eve.
Black Nativity is a film that will prove to be enigmatic to most of its viewers, many of whom will be unsettled and perplexed by its rather archaic Afrocentrism. The film’s earnest fusion of Boyz n the Hood with African-American Baptist ideals and song is depressingly hackneyed. In an increasingly post-racial western world – where Barrack Obama is president and Steve McQueen dusts his mantelpiece for the awards he is a shoe-in for – films like this seem inexplicable and incredibly old fashioned.
It is not completely without merit; it is a very well-shot film and the cinematography ends up being the surprise star of the show. The acting is also of a decent standard and many of the supporting actors are particularly good – Vondie Curtis-Hall, who plays a pawnbroker and is Lemmons’ husband in real life, provides an assured presence throughout. Ultimately though the film is disappointing in several departments and, even if viewers can stomach the Al-Sharpton-meets-Santa-Clause theme, the musical numbers are forgettable, badly lip-synched and simply noneuphonious.
Guy de Vito
Black Nativity is released nationwide on 6th December 2013.
Watch the trailer for Black Nativity here: