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Black Nativity
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by Jay Seaver

"An unusual musical, though not a transcendent one."
3 stars

It's not exactly uncommon for people to make musicals as relatively small as "Black Nativity", although they generally don't have the likes of Fox releasing them wide or a cast full of familiar faces. The big studios tend to go big when they do something like this, but its the small independent nature of this movie that makes it interesting, even when it does seem to have a split personality.

It opens in Baltimore, where fifteen-year-old Langston Cobbs (Jacob Latimore) and his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) are facing eviction. Needing to work through the holidays, Naima sends Langston to Harlem to spend the week with the grandparents he's never met. Though grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) is unreservedly happy to see him, "The Reverend" Cornell (Forest Whitaker) is somewhat chilly, leading Langston to scheme for a way to get back home.

At least, that's the bit that most directly drives the story; being in New York with his grandparents naturally also gives him a chance to learn about his family history, but that's something that sort of comes and goes from the story until things start drawing together. The lack of a strong central narrative is something of a problem for this movie; while writer/director Kasi Lemmons seems to be trying for an intimate, character-focused picture, the audience doesn't get much of a chance to know Langston from his words and how he interacts with his environment, so his actions often seem random, and Jacob Latimore just doesn't seem to have the experience as an actor to pull everything Lemmons is trying to do into a cohesive character.

And give Lemmons some credit for ambition, at least where style is concerned - Black Nativity has hand-held, grainy realism when viewing the rougher parts of Baltimore and Harlem from Langston's perspective, while Forest Whitaker especially plays his scenes with a certain theatricality. The nativities of the title are impressive, both the one Cornell stages and the modern interpretation. Lemmons does not settle for just including songs in her attempts to make this a unique experience.

The use of the songs is interesting, too - although a large chunk of the cast are recording artists as well as actors (Latimore, Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Luke James, Grace Gibson, and Nasir "Nas" Jones), Lemmons and company don't overpower the audience with their pipes early on. Latimore, in particular, has an uncertain tenor to his voice, and composers Laura Karpman & Raphael Saadiq (with Taura Stinson and Doobie Powell also working on the arrangements) use that and a relatively small backing sound to emphasize how solitary and lost the characters can feel. This doesn't last forever - you don't put Jennifer Hudson in the middle of your cast if you don't intend to eventually blow the roof off - but the way the music scales up as the drama becomes more pitched is well-done.

Sometimes the cast's different means of performing both as singers and actors means they have a bit of a difficult time jelling - Forest Whitaker is doing a different thing than Jennifer Hudson than Jacob Latimore than Tyrese Gibson. There are certainly some standouts, though - Angela Bassett proves once again that she really cannot do any wrong, and Vondie Curtis-Hall can grab hold of a scene in a way that is as gentle as it is firm. And while Lemmons is certainly not subtle with certain things - the movie may mostly take inspiration from poet Langston Hughes's Black Nativity instead of being any sort of direct adaptation, but she will not let the audience forget where the source material comes from - she does ultimately stitch together something that works, heightened melodrama and all.

Before finishing the review, I should probably mention that I am not in this movie's primary demographics at all, and someone who has a more direct connection to Hughes or this sort of religious imagery will probably have a stronger emotional reaction than I. Even for an outsider like myself, it's still got some power, even if the odd pieces Lemmons jumbles together might not work for everyone.

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originally posted: 12/01/13 16:36:44
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  27-Nov-2013 (PG)
  DVD: 15-Apr-2014

  06-Dec-2013 (PG)

  DVD: 15-Apr-2014

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