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An Urban Gospel with spirit, but hardly any soul.
Review (with Spoilers)
First things first, I have never read the play this film is based on, but with so many top quality actors in the movie, as well as a mix of newcomers to film, I was interested. Unfortunately, though, in my mind, I was picturing a Sister Act type movie in which well-known songs were given a gospel spin, like how the trailer uses As by Stevie Wonder, but all the songs, in fact, are original or inspired by Christmas songs. Thus, making Black Nativity an urban gospel musical, of which I sort wished I waited to, or didn’t, see.
Characters & Story
The film stars Jacob Latimore as Langston Cobbs, a young man who is very much a momma’s boy, but probably only because she seems to be all he has had for a long time. Said mother, Naima (played by Jennifer Hudson), is a single mother who faces financial struggles due to the city laying her off and, due to that, her home in foreclosure. So, with her being put out around Christmas, she sends her son off to her estranged parents: Reverend Cornell Cobbs (played by Forest Whitaker) and Angela Cobbs (played by Angela Bassett). On his way, he runs into a man named Tyson (played by Tyrese Gibson), a local hoodlum who, when Langston is at a fork in the road, presents the option of no return as opposed to the way of his grandparents.
As a whole, though, the story is about the struggles that come from living. Be it struggling to pay bills, struggling to keep your family safe, and hopefully together, and how hope and faith are sometimes the only thing you may have during the quest to survive. So, needless to say, this film is heavy with the concept of faith, and especially Christianity.
When it comes to praise, I must admit I do find it slightly hard to find something concrete to compliment. When the movie first started, I liked the music, but as time goes on it gets more and more faith/ gospel sounding, and then I got turned off. And not necessarily because it was gospel sounding period, but it was the calm sounding gospel which doesn’t kick your spirit in gear, but instead reminds you of the boring parts of going to church. Then, moving on to the church aspect, with Whitaker as a pastor, I wasn’t feeling his performance, but what he said did get to me and had me wanting to shout an “Amen!” And raise up my hand in praise here and there. The last thing I found worth noting were the characters of Jo-Jo (played by Luke James) and Maria (played by Grace Gibson), who have a small role in the film, but from the little I saw, I felt there was an interesting story which unfortunately was left untold.
And really, that is the key issue of this movie, you don’t feel like anyone’s story is truly told. In total, the film is 93 minutes and during that time outside of Naima’s financial troubles and why she doesn’t speak with her parents, nothing else got developed. We, as viewers, don’t learn anything about anyone unless what they say deals with said conflicts. You see names like Mary J. Blige and Nas, but they seemingly are there solely to lend their name to the movie, and to do some verses. Neither are given characters, what so ever. Even the aforementioned Jo-Jo and Maria, all we learn is that they are homeless and Maria is pregnant. Why are they homeless? Well, that isn’t what the story is about, so unless it is time for them to sing, or to portray Mary and Joseph, they are put in the background.
The biggest travesty though is that this lack of development even extends to our leads. Langston is a boy who grew up in Baltimore, loves his mother dearly, and pretty much that is all that defines him. Naima is a woman who fell in love with a bad boy, had a son, escaped her parents and lives in Baltimore. Again, that is all we pretty much learn about her character. Then with Bassett’s character, she never is anything more than the reverend’s wife and Naima’s mother.
But perhaps the biggest disappointment was Forest Whitaker. Now, I’ll admit I was hoping for more from Bassett, but once we were told she was the preacher’s wife, it was clear her role would be as a meek woman who did nothing but support the pastor. And unfortunately, while Whitaker may have his lines down, he does not have the soul to preach. To me, whoever wrote the sermon, or testimony, in the film, they had something on their heart that even Whitaker’s sad performance couldn’t dilute. Yet, at the same time, considering Whitaker’s performance in The Butler and then for this to come out, it makes you wonder if his heart was in this film, or if he was just looking to keep his name out there?
Overall: Skip It
Black Nativity to me is a disappointment and suffers greatly from lack of character development and having established actors and musicians, who I feel were underutilized. That is why I say to skip it. Black Nativity feels like it was rushed so that it could be released during the holiday season. And overall the film, to me, will be a forgotten part of the filmography of all those involved and really, outside of a handful of the songs, so will the soundtrack be a forgotten part of the discography of the singers who lent their voices.