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"BLACK NATIVITY"
(2013) (Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker) (PG)


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QUICK TAKE:
Drama/Musical: A Baltimore teen goes to stay with his Harlem grandparents who he's never met, all while trying to figure out how to get $5,000 to save his mom's home.
PLOT:
Langston (JACOB LATIMORE) is a 15-year-old boy who lives in Baltimore with his single mom, Naima (JENNIFER HUDSON), who's trying to make ends meet. Without the $5,000 needed to pay the bills, the two of them end up evicted. With no other option, she sends Langston to stay with her long-estranged parents, the Reverend Cornell (FOREST WHITAKER) and Aretha Cobbs (ANGELA BASSETT) in Harlem, despite them having never met the boy who doesn't want to leave his mom.

She nevertheless puts him on the bus, and immediately upon arriving in New York his bag is stolen, he can't find his grandparents, and he ends up wrongly accused of stealing a man's wallet. Those charges are dropped, but while briefly in the lockup he meets Tyson (TYRESE GIBSON), an adult man who challenges the boy before he's released into the custody of Cornell.

He's a proud man who once marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. and has a handsome pocket watch as his engraved memento from those days. He also treats a homeless couple, JoJo (LUKE JAMES) and his pregnant girlfriend or wife, Maria (GRACE GIBSON), with respect, but is tougher on his grandson, unlike Aretha who takes a gentler approach.

Desperate to figure out how to get the $5,000 his mom owes, Langston comes up with several impromptu ideas that eventually reveal things he wasn't expecting about himself, his mom, and the father he's never met.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
There's a scene in the third act of writer/director Kasi Lemmons' musical adaptation of the Langston Hughes play, "Black Nativity," that's interesting in its symbolism and juxtaposition of past and present elements. That's where a young couple (Luke James and Grace Gibson) are about to have their first child in Manhattan, but can't find a place to stay and deliver the baby. A teen (Jacob Latimore) races around to find some place and someone who will accommodate them, all while we see a camel plodding through Times Square, and a Star of Bethlehem type twinkle up above the bright neon signs advertising establishments like the Bank of Judea and such.

While that might sound and even come off as a bit odd -- even if you somehow manage to accept people suddenly singing to express their thoughts and feelings as always occurs in most musicals -- it's really just a dream. It stems from that 15-year-old having fallen asleep in his grandfather's (Forest Whitaker) Harlem Baptist church where the titular event is being staged, with that including the boy's grandmother (Angela Bassett) singing in the choir.

The boy is there because his mother (Jennifer Hudson) can't pay their bills back in Baltimore and thus had no other recourse but to send Langston (named after the Harlem poet and playwright) to stay with her parents from whom she's been estranged after ending up pregnant herself as a teen. The boy isn't happy to be there, not only due to the fact that he's never met his grandparents, but also because he needs to figure out a way to get his hands on the $5,000 his mom needs to save their home.

With no other resources, his schemes tend toward the criminal, including one that ends up with a potentially dangerous standoff with a local pawnshop owner (Tyrese Gibson). This being a Christmas movie about Christmas miracles, though, there's never a doubt that the boy will see the light and that his various questions will be addressed and answered (including why his mom and grandparents haven't been in touch for years, as well as who is father is and why he left him back at his beginning), both through the above dream sequence as well as the staging of the namesake event.

While that's all well and good in terms of intentions, the execution leaves much to be desired. I'm not some diehard musical aficionado snob, but I enjoy the genre when it's done right and especially when any such offering contains memorable, catchy or just simply entertaining songs. The ones here by Raphael Saadiq (who also did the score with Laura Karpman) are arguably some of the most bland and forgettable numbers ever created for a movie musical. None caught my attention during the film and I couldn't come up with one (even in terms of just humming a few bars or singing a few lines) even if my life depended on it.

Thankfully, it should never come down t that, and none came off as awful or akin to nails down a chalkboard. Yet, considering they weren't around in Hughes' original 1961 play (especially the rap and hip hop numbers), they clearly could and should have been composed in a better and more engaging fashion. If you don't believe me, go out and buy this soundtrack and then something like the same from "Rent" and compare the two and you'll immediately see and hear the difference.

That said, the singing of the bland songs is fine, and while Whitaker's brief moments might make some wonder if they're about to witness a singing train wreck, he's adequate enough and won't have anyone think he's the second coming of Russell Crowe from last year's "Les Miserables." Interestingly enough, and speaking of that classic, the two musicals share the base story of a parent not being able to care for their child and having them live with others.

Yet, while "Les Miz" had that in the middle of a complex story comprised of various storylines, the one here is far more straightforward and simplified. And thus it similarly comes off as bland and forgettable (aside from some briefly touched upon past connections to Martin Luther King, Jr.)

It's also contrived in its setup as I never once believed that Hudson's character -- estranged from her parents due to a horrific thing they did in the past when she was a pregnant 15-year-old that resulted in her running away from home never to see them again) -- would send her only child to stay with them, especially since neither side has ever met the other. I understand it's all designed for familial exploration and the exercising of past demons, forgiveness and such, but beyond a briefly powerful and emotional moment right before the end, I didn't care.

In fact, I couldn't wait for the film to conclude as its otherwise scant 90-some minute run time easily felt twice as long. And with no standout songs, it also failed me as a musical. Had Lemmons played more with the fantastical elements as she did in that one scene and included some powerhouse numbers to rouse one's spirits and emotions, this could have been something. Alas, that miracle never shines down on "Black Nativity" that rates as just a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed November 20, 2013 / Posted November 27, 2013


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