Black Nativity, which opens wide tomorrow, is an adaptation of the popular holiday gospel musical. In case you are not familiar with it, it’s a play in which nativity story is dramatized by an all-black cast, typically accompanied by African drums. The play is performed annually all over the country, in churches and community centers. The original libretto and music were written and chosen by Langston Hughes, the Harlem Renaissance poet. And when the thing debuted on Broadway, after a troubled bout in development and rehearsal, it was a sensation. Per Hughes’ biographer, Arnold Rampersand:
Aroused by the musical and religious fervor on stage, the capacity audience yelled and cooed ecstatically. One white woman sprang from her seat with a cry, then fainted dead away; and in honor of God and in defiance of Equity, the singers sang for about half-an-hour past the prescribed end of the show. Unanimously, except for remarks about its sometimes sentimental tone, the critics hailed Black Nativity as a major entertainment.
Kasi Lemmons, the director of this new Hollywood version, frames the performance of the play with a story about a religious couple — Forest Whitaker, playing an MLK Jr.-blessed pastor, and wife Angela Bassett — who have become estranged from their daughter (Jennifer Hudson) and grandson (Jacob Latimore). When Hudson is facing eviction from her home in Baltimore, she sends her son to his grandparents in Harlem. And thus a relatively simple story of family reconciliation is set in motion. You don’t even need me to recount for the plot for you. Most people can guess exactly how it goes. Add in some really kind of great singing of otherwise forgettable tunes, and you’re there with me.
The simplicity of the plot — some might say the over-simplicity — is, at times, grating. The movie uses every banality about love and family and, you know, Christmas, that you expect it to. But it is somehow not quite as cloying or annoying to experience as it is to describe in print. This, I think, is the essential tension of the effective religious movie, and perhaps, though I’ll try not to extemporize too much about it, of religion itself. Like its predecessor play, the usual rules about sentimentality and cliché don’t quite apply to Black Nativity. People respond to these religious bits because of their flatness, somehow. The familiarity refers out to some greater kinds of desire — wanting families to be mended, wanting community, wanting to believe there is greater meaning in life. The fervor can substitute for cleverness.
I am not quite advocating that we hold these movies to a different standard overall. For a lot of reasons I’m sure I needn’t enumerate for you, the role of fervor in religion could have the same negative effects on art as it sometimes does in life. But I feel it’s important to meet a movie like Black Nativity where it actually is. This isn’t a film in the sense that it doesn’t feel like a highly personal odyssey for the director or the cast. It is not the kind of work, like the new Coen Brothers or Spike Jonze or Lemmons’ wonderful and under-sung film Eve’s Bayou, that ought to be evaluated as such.
Instead it seems designed, throughout, to be a sort of community event, a thing you can attend with your parents over the holidays to take a two-hour break from the monotony of togetherness. And for that function, it will serve a lot of people — particularly African Americans, yes, but I do not think it stops there because a Christmas movie is a Christmas movie — well. It displays virtually no regressive attitudes about what constitutes a family, there are no long, proselytizing sermons, and the visuals are gorgeous. There are a lot of worse things you could get dragged to over the holidays.