Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Review: "Black Nativity"

The Christmas pageant is a familiar holiday tradition for most everyone who grew up in America, and “Black Nativity” is the closest cinematic replication one could think of. There’s singing, dancing, some mild religiosity, and family tensions giving way to warm togetherness.

Writer/director Kasi Lemmons loosely adapts the stage musical version of the Nativity story told with an all-black cast written by Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes. It’s almost an homage to Hughes himself, with the main character, Langston Cobbs (Jacob Latimore), bearing his name and legacy.

The film is colorful, joyous and heartfelt. The characters exist more as archetypes than flesh-and-blood beings, but that’s part and parcel of adapting mythology into modern times. The Cobbs family also takes center stage, while the tale of Mary and Joseph (Grace Gibson and Luke James) gets turned into the backdrop.

Think of it this way: various people wander on and off the stage, declaring themselves to us in song and prose, and then they all get together at the end to usher us on our way back into our own regular lives. We relate to them not as actual people who we might stumble into on the street, but as representations of ourselves, both our ideals and our failings. Their role is not to convince us they could be real, but to embody our innermost desires for ourselves, and how we often fail to live up to them.

And, it should be said, the music is very, very good. Much of it is gospel influenced, which shouldn’t surprise as the main character is a preacher and the last act takes place in his church on Christmas Eve. I particularly liked the songs “Fix Me” and “Be Grateful.”

Latimore is a well-known R&B artist, and other famous performers surface as cast members such as Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Nas. But mainstream actors Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett and Tyrese Gibson also croon in, showing off pipes we didn’t know they had. (Whitaker in particular shines with a gorgeous, smooth baritone.)

Langston Cobbs is a youth from Baltimore, where he lives with his single mother, Naimi (Hudson). She lost her job and is struggling to make ends meet, and their brownstone is about to be foreclosed. She sends her son to stay with her estranged grandparents in Harlem, with the tacit implication that he may be there for a while.

Langston has never met his grandparents, or even knew they existed. It’s a big culture shock. While not a bad kid, he’s used to a certain amount of independence and sass, and neither are much brooked in the home of Cornell and Angela Cobbs (Whitaker and Bassett). Rev. Cobbs is a man who wears his dignity like a fine suit that he cares for well, much like the pocket watch he was personally given by Martin Luther King Jr.

There’s a mysterious big hurt between the elders Cobbses and their daughter, and Langston spends the rest of the story trying to ferret out what it is. Gibson plays Tyson, a street tough who offers some advice and help, though not necessarily in pursuits that will have a positive outcome.

While some might be annoyed that the story of Jesus takes a backseat to the Cobbs clan, I found their company more like an embrace that feels awkward at first, but becomes warmer as the audience and movie clutch harder. Bring on the show.

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