Praise Worthy?: Looking for the spirit of Langston Hughes in 'Black Nativity'

The new film musical, “Black Nativity” boasts an impressive cast, including Academy Award winners Forest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, stars of the musical world Mary J. Blige and the rapper Nas and a talented newcomer, the 17-year-old musician and singer Jacob Latimore. It describes itself as a “contemporary adaptation” of a revered theatrical piece written by the poet Langston Hughes as a re-telling of the Christmas story set in Harlem. The screenwriter and director, Kasi Lemmons, continues a career that includes her direction of two award-winning films, “Eve’s Bayou” (1997) and “Talk to Me” (2007). A whole lot of talent has been poured into this film.

The movie follows the journey of a young black man named Langston (Latimore) living with his mother Naima (Hudson) in a run-down section of Baltimore. After receiving an eviction notice, Naima puts Langston on a bus to Harlem to stay with her parents, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Bassett), from whom she has been estranged. Bitter and angry, Langston feels completely out of place in the upscale Strivers Row house of his grandparents. He manages to get into trouble within one day on the streets. However, it is Christmas Eve, and Aretha coerces Langston into attending his grandfather’s annual Christmas Eve service, a festival of gospel music and some dramatization of the Nativity. The narration of the church service is interrupted by a dream sequence when  Langston, who, bored by the service, falls asleep and dreams a contemporary version of the Nativity with Mary and Joseph as young street people looking desperately for a shelter where she can deliver her child. The film ends with major revelations and family reconciliation that make for a very joyful Christmas, even for young Langston.

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This, however, is not really a “contemporary adaption” of Hughes’s original musical theater piece, which was first produced off-Broadway in December 1961 and has become a classic Christmas production that  is still presented annually in Boston, Seattle and other locations. In that retelling of Luke’s account, the all-black 1961 cast performed a number of traditional spirituals, beginning and ending the show with “Go Tell It on the Mountain.” In the film, the Nativity story is contained in the few minutes of Langston’s dream during the church service. The more elaborate narrative of this film involving Langston and his family is heartwarming, maybe even inspiring, but is basically a collection of plot elements that are so unoriginal and sentimental that they fail to arouse much emotion.

Meanwhile, there are the musical numbers, which make the thin plot an excuse for a wonderful Christmas concert. In a tribute to Langston Hughes’s original production, the film offers several contemporary versions of Christmas spirituals, like “Motherless Child,” “Fix Me Jesus” and “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow” along with many original songs in the same mode, such as “Hush Child (Get You Through this Silent Night),” “He Loves Me Still,” “Can’t Stop Praising His Name” and a song written by Stevie Wonder, “As.” When sung by the likes of Jennifer Hudson, Nas, Mary J. Blige, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett, they are powerful anthems, especially when accompanied by the Gospel choir. The younger performers are also impressive, especially Luke James and Grace Gibson as the dream’s Mary and Joseph. Jacob Latimore, who appears and sings in almost every sequence of the film, makes an impressive debut in a starring role, underplaying the hurt and anger that are boiling underneath while gaining sincere affection and sympathy from the audience.

Both television and movie theaters offer a glut of Christmas-related stories every year, mostly comedies. But something close to the true spirit of the feast can still be found in classics such as “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “A Christmas Story” and, for my money, the most Dickensian version of “A Christmas Carol,” the 1951 British release starring Alastair Sim as the ultimate Scrooge. Or, of course, one can visit Charlie Brown and friends once again. However, for an appreciation of the real message of the feast, one can do no better than to buy, rent or stream the 2005 French film, “Joyeux Noel.” Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards that year, it dramatizes the true story of an event in World War I when, on Christmas Eve of 1914, the French and Scottish soldiers celebrated a temporary “cease-fire” with the German troops in the no man’s land between the two battle lines (numerous sections along the Western front that year made similar pacts with the enemy). No one would call this a “feel good” movie, but it inspires one to imagine what the world could be like if we truly believed and followed the example of the divine infant of Bethlehem.

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