There are a lot of big movies scheduled for release this holiday season, but not many of them are actual holiday movies. There is also a surprising lack of musicals. Sweeping in to fill the void is Black Nativity, a holiday-themed musical that is based on the play by Langston Hughes. The film’s timing may be good, but unfortunately the movie comes off more like a television special than a big-screen musical.
A teenager named Langston is the product of a broken home. His father ran off when he was just a baby and his entire life it has just been him and his mom. Unfortunately, she is struggling to make ends meet and sends Langston to New York where he will spend the holidays with his estranged grandparents.
Langston soon comes to learn that something happened in the past between his mother and her parents, something so egregious that she has not wanted anything to do with them for the past fifteen years or so. This separation angers Langston so much that he seeks out the help of a local petty criminal. It all leads to a dramatic confrontation at the church were Langston’s grandfather is putting on his annual Christmas pageant.
Led by Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett, Black Nativity features an impressive cast. This includes Jennifer Hudson in her first big-screen musical since winning the Oscar for her performance in 2006’s Dreamgirls. Unfortunately, the Jennifer Hudson we get in Black Nativity is a far cry from the one whose overpowering emotion blew away audiences and Academy voters seven years ago. Here, the actress fails to show any emotion. She has the exact same look on her face the entire movie, including the times when she is singing. The voice is still there, but there is nothing behind it.
In contrast, Angela Bassett sometimes seems to emote too much. That’s a relief, though, in a movie in which most of the characters have nothing but stern looks on their faces for much of the runtime. The other exception is Grace Gibson, who shows up as a pregnant homeless woman. Despite her difficult situation, her smile shines through.
Black Nativity’s largest failure is its musical numbers. They are just incredibly bland and poorly constructed. Sometimes, it’s questionable whether what we are watching is an actual musical number as we alternate between seeing the character sing and just hearing the voices on the soundtrack. The poor pacing of the musical numbers is mirrored by the poor pacing of the movie itself. At times it felt like director Kasi Lemmons could not figure out how to get from one plot point to the next; the most blatant of these moments came when the lead character made a crucial decision that came completely out of nowhere and did not feel authentic.
Despite all of its flaws, Black Nativity does manage to pack in some emotion when it finally does brings all of its characters together, but the end still does not justify the ends. The movie would probably work as a holiday special on television, but on the big screen it just feels weak.
Black Nativity is rated PG for “thematic material, language and a menacing situation.” This is designed to be a family movie, so there’s very little objectionable material to be found.
Courtesy of a local publicist, Jeff attended a promotional screening of Black Nativity.