Soulful, Motown numbers always manage to suit the mood during the festive period, as there’s just something about this melodic, feel-good music that alleviates you in the bitterly cold wintertime. Therefore, expectations were suitably raised for Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity, a Christmas musical celebrating African-American culture. However sadly this concept is let down by a film that is needlessly melodramatic, and unbearably mawkish.
We delve into the life of troubled youngster Langston (Jacob Latimore), who is sent away for Christmas, while his mother (Jennifer Hudson) strives on making enough money over the holidays to ensure they don’t get evicted from their Baltimore flat. Instead, Langston is to spend the foreseeable future with his estranged grandparents, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha (Angela Bassett), who live in a swanky, upper class abode in New York. Though completely resistant to the trip, and desperate to find a way home, it soon transpires that perhaps some quality family time is just what Langston needs to set him on the right path, even if in such unfamiliar surroundings.
Where this film should shine is within its soundtrack, with a host of impressive vocal talents on board, with the likes of Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige and rapper Nas all with supporting roles, not to mention Whitaker’s unforgettably silky voice. However sadly the selection of songs is underwhelming, and the mediocre, original material does this title no favours, with few classic songs being reimagined for our viewing pleasure. Given this is a musical, the weakness in the arrangement of the singing sequences poses something of a problem. While the most uplifting and entertaining song is performed during the final credits, be sure to keep your eyes out for a good old-fashioned butchering of the harrowing, traditional blues number Motherless Child earlier on.
At this film’s core, there does lie an intriguing, traditional rags-to-riches tale of a young boy growing up with nothing, before spending time with his affluent relatives, adjusting to a culture otherwise unbeknown to him. However it’s incredibly difficult to root for him, as he bears a questionable moral compass. Of course that’s evidently the point, but it remains to be seen whether he ever actually learns from his mistakes or changes his criminally opportunist ways. He makes some terrible decisions and doesn’t appear to repent for his sins. If he steals objects of great sentimental significance to their owner and attempts to sell it on, or desperately tries to purchase a weapon, for example, he is only ever stopped in his tracks because of other people’s resistance, and somebody else’s refusal of his custom. He’s merely fortunate enough that others are looking out for him, not making for such an endearing, empathetical lead as a result.
Talking of empathetical though, Whitaker is the stand-out performer, just giving this film that little touch of class it needs, as his alluring presence illuminates every scene he’s in. However regrettably his performance is one of only few positives, as a film that ends on such an illusory, elaborate and downright absurd finale. Though in Lemmon’s defence, it does seem to revel in its kitsch approach, as Mary J. Blige can be seen sporting a haircut that’s seemingly been inspired by Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future, while nonchalantly sporting a pair of angel wings. That alone is worth sticking around for.