Friday, 6 December 2013

Review: Black Nativity

Year: 2013
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Screenplay: Kasi Lemmons
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Jacob Latimore, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Nas.

Despite what my family and friends may think, I am more interested in the voices of others than my own. So listening to the assorted mutters and murmurings of the other patrons of this screening was far more exciting, than me sprouting off any so called film "cred". I shuffled myself into the corner next to the nibbles and earwigged on the nearby conversations.

As the screening of the film was for the new family feature "Black Nativity" the conversations were of course on just where the "Black" movie went. It was invigorating to hear excited voices talk about the 90's boom where films with an Afro-centric cast were a lot easier to discover then now. Even Tyler Perry doesn't make British shores (despite decent minority presence and Perry making top dollar in his native land). It seems fairly obvious that there’s an audience that wish for more movies of this ilk, and while the likes of Blue Caprice, 12 Years a Slave and Fruitvale Station have started to make waves, it still seems to be a struggle to see Afro-centric films in lighter affair. 

Enter Black Nativity which despite dealing with quite typical themes of poverty, religious elders and run away baby daddies, tries to imbue festive cheer by taking the Langston Hughes play of the same name and re-envisioning the material as a modern hip-hop musical. The outcome is more than a little uneven.

Jacob Latimore plays Langston Cobbs (check the namesake), a young and rebellious teen whose mother (a spirited but stilted display from Jennifer Hudson) forces him to move from his (newly evicted) home in Baltimore to his estranged grandparents in Harlem, New York. Here he finds himself on a spiritual and emotional journey which helps him find not only a meaning of Christmas but family identity as well.

Black Nativity is a film which likes to think that meaning well will be enough for it to get by. Its mawkish screenplay and awkward editing, do a lot to hinder a film that wishes to place a fresh spin on a well worn narrative. The film often leaps haphazardly from sensitive moment to heavy handed, obvious message musical at the drop of the dime. You can’t dismiss the quality of the music production and the cast, but you can really raise an eyebrow to the often awkward tonal shifts and simplistic lyrics. One may also wonder why certain famous faces appear in the film.  The likes of Mary J Blige and Nas appear if only to try and engage a certain target audience. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if we got more from their performances, but their aural displays haven’t lost their shine.

The film is left up to the older guard to pick up the slack and Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett happily oblige. Both Whitaker and Bassett light up the humorous and dramatic scenes that they feature in and give the film the grounding and energy that Black Naivety sorely needs. This is much needed as Latimore (Vanishing on 7th Street) struggles to carry the film where it needs to go. His surliness feels more wooden than anything and the character himself is tough to love at the best of times.

That said, this is the point of Black Nativity. It reminds us that family is not just in name but in blood and while the character’s themes and turns are obvious and the film holds no real surprises, the story that surrounds it has enough small moments to connect with its target base. I also have to say that while the film didn’t stir me emotionally, it did direct me towards the works of Langston Hughes; the black writer whose works became an integral aspect of what was known as the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural movement which explored the lives of African Americans during the 1920’s. While Black Nativity doesn’t have the same sense of commune and spirit that those works brought to people. It clearly shows a wish to try and reach such a depth. It’s safe to say that a cynic like me may find Black Nativity a little hard to swallow, however I will not be surprised if many get caught up with the films music and message.  I do feel the film will keep the people talking. Hopefully such talk will get louder and more interesting productions will be brought to the foreground because of it. The film may rest on its good intentions, but in comparison to bigger films I’ve seen this year, at least it’s has them.