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Movie Review: Black Nativity

November 29, 2013

Black Nativity PosterBlack Nativity – A Fox Searchlight Release

http://www.foxsearchlight.com/blacknativity/

Release Date: November 27th, 2013

Rated PG for thematic material

Running time: 93 minutes

Kasi Lemmons (dir.)

Kasi Lemmons (screenplay)

Laura Karpman (music)

Raphael Saadiq (music)

Jacob Latimore as Langston

Forest Whitaker as Reverend Cornell Cobbs

Angela Bassett as Aretha Cobbs

Jennifer Hudson as Naima

Tyrese Gibson as Tyson

Mary J. Blige as Angel

Nasir Jones as Street Prophet (Isaiah)

Vondie Curtis-Hall as Pawnbroker

Luke James as Jo-Jo (Joseph)

Grace Gibson as Maria (Mary)

Black Nativity

©Fox Searchlight.  All Rights Reserved.

Naima (Jennifer Hudson) and Langston (Jacob Latimore) in Black Nativity.

Our reviews below:

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Black Nativity Review By John C.

*** (out of 4)

The classic 1961 gospel musical Black Nativity was a landmark achievement from Langston Hughes that took the Christmas story and presented it with an entirely black cast.  Now director Kasi Lemmons has used his work as the inspiration for her latest film, a holiday musical centred around a staging of the classic show, with a main character named after the iconic poet.

After his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) receives an eviction notice right before Christmas, Langston (Jacob Latimore) is sent to stay with his grandparents in Harlem over the holidays. Living with Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) is a serious change of pace for this streetwise teen from Baltimore, and he struggles with the temptations of turning to a life of crime.  But when his grandparents convince him to go to church for their annual Christmas Eve staging of Black Nativity, he finds himself taken on an unexpected spiritual journey.

The story is kind of predictable and a few of the stylistic touches are a bit much, especially during a dream sequence set in Times Square reimagined as a modern Bethlehem.  But the soundtrack and performances consistently elevate Black Nativity.  Newcomer Jacob Latimore is an incredible young talent, carrying much of the movie on his shoulders and getting several opportunities to show off his powerful voice.  We all know that Jennifer Hudson can sing, and her breathtaking vocals are put to great use throughout the film.  There are also several nice moments with Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett.

The musical performances are the main reason to see the well intentioned Black Nativity, finishing the film on a genuine high note with a rousing gospel number followed by a welcome encore.  The stunning song “Hush Child” is another standout earlier in the film.  With a sweet message, Black Nativity is an entertaining musical filled with the feel good spirit of the holidays.

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Black Nativity Review by Erin V.

**3/4 (out of 4)

Based on a stage musical by Langston Hughes, Black Nativity tells the story of Langston (Jacob Latimore) – a 15 year old living in Baltimore.  When he comes home to find that his mom and him are being evicted from their home, his mother (Jennifer Hudson) sends him off to live with his grandparents in Harlem.  Since his mother is estranged from her parents, these are two people that he has never met, and he is not very happy about being sent away at Christmastime.

The film is about family, facing struggles, and forgiveness.  Langston is struggling to figure out who he is, and his place in his world.  At first annoyed and angry at his grandparents, in particular not getting along with his grandfather, Reverend Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), by the time Christmas Eve and the Black Nativity Christmas play rolls around, Langston, and everyone important in his life have to figure out the true meaning of the season and how to forgive each other for things in the past and present.

The story is very typical for a seasonal film, and provides a good message, although what makes the film really worth seeing is for its musical numbers – with all the leads performing very well, and relative newcomer Jacob Latimore playing Langston holding his own with the more well-known singers around him.

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Black Nativity Review by Nicole

*** (out of 4)

Black Nativity draws parallels between the birth of Jesus and modern urban poverty.  Loosely inspired by a play of the same name by Langston Hughes, the film follows Langston (Jacob Latimore), an at risk 15-year-old, as he finds his way in life.  When Langston and his mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) are threatened with eviction, she sends him off to live with his grandparents, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett).  They’re church going folks, something that Langston rolls his eyes at.  But perhaps the meaning of Christmas is exactly what Langston and his mother need for a miracle.

Black Nativity is an inspiring film.  The Christian message is beautifully told in a universal way.  Jesus was born into a poverty, a point that is shown in an unusual dream sequence, reminiscent of Canadian artist William Kurelek’s book Northern Nativity.  But what really holds this film together are the songs.  This is a musical, with much of the plot revealed through a mix of gospel music, spirituals and rap.  The acting is good, and newcomer Jacob Latimore is especially good as Langston.  Not only is Latimore a great actor, he also has a phenomenal voice, sounding much like a young Michael Jackson.

Black Nativity takes both a solemn and celebratory look at the meaning of Christmas.  The music is amazing, and as a gospel fan, this film does not disappoint.  This is a great Christian Christmas movie that is an excellent choice for church groups.

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Black Nativity Review by Maureen

*** (out of 4)

Every year around December there are numerous performances in a variety of formats celebrating and telling the story of the birth of Jesus, the Nativity.  This season offers Black Nativity, a musical drama based on the popular original stage musical by Langston Hughes.

The movie version, directed and written by Kasi Lemmons, tells the story of a single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson) who because of financial difficulties has to send her teenage son, Langston (Jacob Latimore) to New York for an open-ended Christmas visit with the grandparents he has never met.

Grandpa Revered Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and Grandma Aretha Cobbs (Angela Bassett) lead a popular Harlem gospel church and live a comfortable life in New York City.  Having been estranged from Naima for years, having grandson Langston in their home is an adjustment for all involved.

Langston feels abandoned and struggles with the harsh realities of living in New York.  His feelings as he experiences life in New York are told through song.  Black Nativity is, after all, a musical.  Each of the characters in turn expresses their thoughts and feelings through a wonderful mix of traditional Christmas and gospel songs as well as some original pieces.

The amazing musical numbers are what carry Black Nativity and more than offset the sometimes slow-moving and predictable storyline.  The Christmas Eve musical performance at Reverend Cobbs’ church that closes out the movie is wonderful.  This is Black Nativity‘s Christmas miracle.  There are no weak performances here.  Jennifer Hudson is great as always, Mary J. Blige has some excellent numbers as an angel and the surprise performance of the movie comes from the relatively unknown Jacob Latimore as Langston, whose voice is lovely.

For those of us who have a soft-spot for Nativity stories and Gospel music, Black Nativity is worth seeing and hearing for the soundtrack.  It also serves as a nice reminder of the true meaning of the Christmas Nativity story.  Add this one to your Christmas viewing list.

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Black Nativity Review by Tony

**1/2 (out of 4)

Black Nativity is a musical film written around the 1961 play by Harlem writer Langston Hughes that dramatizes the Christmas story with an African American cast and gospel music. Naima (Jennifer Hudson) had left her parents, Harlem pastor Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) when she got pregnant at fifteen years of age. Living in Baltimore as a single mother and now facing eviction, she reluctantly sends her fifteen year old son Langston (Jacob Latimore) to stay with her parents, hoping to rejoin him soon. Langston finds it difficult to come to terms with what he discovers in Harlem about his origins.

I had mixed feelings about Black Nativity. The music and performances are all good, but I found the main storyline ponderous and its attempts at allegory overreaching, particularly during the operatic dream sequences, with characters that were hard for me to really like.

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Consensus: Although the story is predictable, Black Nativity is a feel good musical that is elevated by an excellent soundtrack and good performances, led by Jennifer Hudson and talented newcomer Jacob Latimore.  *** (Out of 4)

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