Langston Hughes may have been born in Joplin but, because he was brought up in this state, a lot of Kansans claim him as one of us. His 1961 play “Black Nativity” has been made into a film by Kasi Lemmons, and the film is showing out at the twelve-plex.
The movie is part play, part Gospel story in contemporary dress, part musical. Its cast includes the great Forrest Whitaker, much honored Angela Bassett, Oscar winner and diet scheme shill Jennifer Hudson, singer Mary J. Blige, rapper Nas, Tyrese Gibson (giving a surprisingly well-considered performance), and young Jacob Latimore. All of them (and several others) have song solos.
Oh, there may be fifteen musical numbers in the film, some of them traditional spirituals, some of them with words written for the show by Hughes. Despite the occasion, they are not generally happy songs. In fact, there is something somber about the whole show.
To some extent, the story is a mystery. What we want to know is what caused Naimi (Hudson) to distrust her father, Rev. Cobbs (Whitaker), to the point that she refuses all help and almost all communication with him? As the film begins, she is being ejected from the Baltimore home she has shared with her teen-aged son, Langston (Latimore).
Christmas is approaching. So she sends Langston on a bus north to New York City. He will live with her middle-class parents in Harlem until she can get her financial circumstances sorted out. She is estranged from the boy’s father.
But Langston has never before met his grandparents, and he wants very much to stay with his mother. When he arrives in New York, his money is immediately stolen. He is mistakenly arrested for theft. In a holding cell he meets the ne’er-do-well Loot (Gibson), who suggests small potatoes crime is a waste of time.
Released into the custody of the famous, MLK-approved Reverend, Langston finds the old man to be unattractively formal. More ingratiating is Grandma (Bassett). And yet it is Grandpa who gives the boy money to give to a Joseph and pregnant Mary who come caroling at the row house.
There are a couple of other characters who have obvious Biblical origins. Nas sort of stands in for Old Testament prophet Isaiah. Blige plays the angel who announces Jesus’s birth. The manger in Bethlehem story is being told in dramatized cut-outs while the Reverend, in his church, hosts a Christmas Eve service complete with choral music and a pageant.
And at the same time Langston is in a closed-for-the-night pawn shop, consulting with Loot about evil ways of helping his mother through her financial difficulties. Viewers wonder how the three narratives are going to reach appropriate and related climaxes at the same time and in the same place.
They do. But the finish is cloaked in music less joyous than the events or the season would seem to warrant. Nope. We’re still in ballad mode when all is revealed, regrets are admitted, forgiveness is asked for, and the baby is born.
Soundtrack composers Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq have turned out some tunes Blige and Hudson can wail on and that Whitaker and Gibson can give decent performances of, but golly the music here seems sad. Maybe they weren’t told they were writing for a story about family reconciliation and the birth of the Prince of Peace. At least the last couple of numbers ought to be up tempo and invigorating. Wouldn’t you think?
Still, it is nice to see a new version of this story after such a long time. Hughes sought new and personal ways to use stories classic in their simplicity. Lemmons’s take on his play is generally in keeping with what the playwright tended to do with a story.
“Black Nativity” is not limited to being a historic oddity, an interesting contrast to what’s going on these days on the stage, in musicals, and in films with predominately African-American casts. It is also an original take on the Christmas story. Compare this film to the seasonal sludge we usually get. Like Hughes, Kansans may be far enough outside the entertainment industry’s self-defined habitat to see its products clearly.