One of those genres that I have never seemed to be too fond of is musicals. Sure, there are a few great films out there like Chicago and Hairspray, but I have mostly become somewhat jaded to the latest musicals. After having to sit through last year’s dreadful Rock of Ages, which turned the 80’s music I knew and loved dearly into these awful covers, it made me want to stop watching musicals in general. It seems that as of recent, musicals have started to be very lacking, appealing more towards teenyboppers (cannot believe I just said that), and less for general audiences looking for a well-made film.
What seemed like an interesting film to change that tide is Black Nativity. Based off a Langston Hughes play of the same name, the film features an all-star cast and had big time Oscar player studio Fox Searchlight behind it, which gave me my fair share of hope. However, while Black Nativity is a improvement over some of the more recent musicals, it’s a fairly mediocre and disposable film.
Black Nativity follows Langston, who is sent to spend his holiday with his relatives after he and his mom are evicted from their apartment. Here, Langston and his family must find a way to bind together for the holidays, after years of being of being disconnected from each other.
The performances in Black Nativity are mostly good, which really is not a big surprise considering the cast. While Forest Whitaker surely has had better performances, notably earlier this year in the Oscar contender The Butler, he always does a respectable job in the films he stars in. Whitaker is skilled, and adds a great deal of class to the film itself. He even handles himself well when the singing starts, which was a pleasant surprise to me.
Supporting actors like Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, and Oscar winner Jenifer Hudson are all in the film as well, and handle their own. The three give strong and convincing performances in their own respective ways. Hudson especially continues to impress me with the depth and strength she has in her voice, making her musical numbers some really great moments. After struggling a bit in Winnie Mandela, this is a nice redemption for Hudson.
Black Nativity has a pleasant, earnest quality to it, along with the film really having a true sense of itself. The film as a whole does not do anything outside of its comfort zone to please general audiences, which is rare for a film being marketed towards family audiences. Black Nativity knows what it is, and doesn’t hide away from that with stupid fart and poop jokes.That defined sense of self is something that is very admirable about the film.
Also to admire about the film is the concept behind it. Langston Hughes was truly one of the most talented writers of the 2oth century, and it seems like his great work does not get brought up enough. When hearing the film was an adaptation of his work, that really sparked my interest. It’s a shame that the film disappointed compared to that standard.
While well performed, the musical numbers in the film really just do not fit in with the rest of the film. The musical numbers in the movie basically are the inner-thoughts of the protagonist’s, which is a cool concept to explain why these people are singing. Still, the musical numbers just feel more like a gimmick to get the talent singing, rather than feeling natural to the story. Sure, they are well executed, but just do not fit with the story.
Dealing with faith in film can be a bit awkward. Filmmakers want people to believe the conviction of the character’s beliefs, but not upset audiences who do not believe in such. This film rides that line too closely, at time feeling like it was shoving its faith-based beliefs down my throat. It just made the film a bit awkward to watch because of that, and made it feel more like a movie made by Kirk Cameron.
While the acting from the veteran cast is quite good, the youths’ performances in the film were not quite up to par. Relatively inexperienced actor Jacob Latimore has a great deal of talent when it comes to singing, but he really gives a weak performance. At times, his acting ranges from disingenuous to just unnatural. It’s hard for a young actor to really be the protagonist in a film, and Latimore is not up to the task, with a mainly stiff performance. Another young actor, Luke Fleischmann, plays a friend of Latimore’s character, and is rather dreadful, feeling like he should not be acting at this level yet.
While some of these negatives are tolerable, bringing the film down in a big way is director and writer Kasi Lemmons. Coming off of her solid directorial effort with Talk to Me, it seems that Lemmons’s adaptation as a whole was really misguided from the jump.
Writing the film seemed like a simple task, just adapt work from the great Langston Hughes. Instead, Lemmons makes a great deal of changes from Hughes’ original work to this film adaptation, which is mindbogglingly stupid. Some changes to give the film more of a modern twist make sense, but changing aspects of the story is strange. Why one would try to change Hughes’s work is just really odd to me. Also, the basic messages of the film, such as the importance of faith and rekindling relationships with family, are executed in a very basic way.
Lemmons’ direction is not much better, as she turns these character revelations and drama into sentimentality. This lack of realism in its dramatic moments makes this feel like a Hallmark TV film, rather than something that would be put out into theaters. As a whole, Lemmons’s effort was sincere, but lacked polish and was ultimately misguided.
Black Nativity is an earnest and sincere effort for sure, but ultimately too sentimental to convey its simplistic messages.
Take a Drink: for each musical number.
Take a Drink: during each overly-sentimental moment.
Do a Shot: for Mary J. Blige’s white hair, um yeah, that existed.