Monday, December 2, 2013

Black Nativity [2013]

MPAA (PG)  CNS/USCCB (A-II)  ChicagoTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (3 Stars)  AVClub (D)  Fr. Dennis (4+ Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. Mulderig) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (M. Zoller Seitz) review
AVClub (I. Vishnevetsky) review

BET articles
Ebony articles articles
TheSource articles
It seems fitting that Black Nativity [2013] (directed and screenplay by Kasi Lemmons, based on the original stage play/musical [Amazon] by Langston Hughes [IMDb]) would come out this year as part of an ever increasingly impressive wave of African American cinema becoming known as the Black Hollywood Renaissance [BBC] [CNN] [Ebony] [HPost].  I write this because Langston Hughes [IMDb]'s original which he characterized as a "Gospel song play" premiered in 1961 and came out of the African American cultural birthing ground that was Harlem at the time.

I've also enjoyed following this African American Hollywood Renaissance in good part because those "who have eyes and ears" (and souls) that are open can see the obvious: that African American film-makers along with the actors/actresses who play in their films are not ashamed of their Christian faith.  And it's not a "pie in the sky" spirituality that's present in these films.  These films -- I think of films as varied as Tyler Perry's Madea's Big Happy Family [2011], Flight [2012], Tyler Perry's Temptation:Confessions of a Marriage Counselor [2013], Fruitvale Station [2013], 12 Years a Slave [2013], Best Man's Holiday [2013] and the current film Black Nativity [2013] -- often name/confront very real pain, dysfunction and betrayal on all kinds of levels.  But they also do so with a confident belief in a God who is _not blind_, who is capable of sorting things out and capable of resolving things with both Justice (toward the injured) and Mercy (toward those who caused injury).  In a phrase, contemporary African American cinema is emphatically NOT Godless.  And someone like me can not but notice and indeed APPLAUD. 

To the film at hand ...

Screenwriter/director Kasi Lemmons creation tells the story of Langston (played by Jacob Latimore), a 15 year old named actually after Langston Hughes the writer of the original stage play.  He's been growing up in Baltimore, raised by his mother Naima (played by Jennifer Hudson), alone, and there are really A HUGE NUMBER OF FUNDAMENTAL YET UNANSWERED QUESTIONS IN HIS LIFE:  Who was his father?  Who were his grandparents, ANY OF HIS GRANDPARENTS?  He hasn't known any of them. 

Now it hasn't been that his mother was evil, we definitely come to see that as the story continues.  However, Langston finds himself with a rather evocative name, yet with little understanding of why he had been given it, and no one to explain ANYTHING TO HIM but his ever harried mother in perpetual survival mode.

Things though had come to a breaking point just as the story begins with Naima realizing that she and her son were about to get evicted and thus deciding to send 15-year-old Langston up to New York (Harlem) to spend Christmas (and probably beyond ...) with her parents (his grandparents) WHO HE'S NEVER MET.  Why such a drastic move?  Apparently at the end of her rope, she tells him: "I'M THINKING ABOUT WHAT'S BEST FOR YOU."  She's avoided this moment for 15 years, so it's obvious that this was a crushingly painful crossroads for her to arrive at.

She puts Langston on a bus with her parents' phone number should he miss them when he arrives.  Yes, there's some confusion when he does arrive.  He doesn't know who he's looking for, they don't know who they are looking for.  (I'm simplifying things ... after various things happening they find each other).

The BIG SURPRISE is that Langston's grandparents don't seem particularly "evil" either.   Langston's grandfather turns out to be a preacher, the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (played exquisitely by Forest Whitaker).  Yes, he's a bit on the stricter side, but he's no monster.  Grandma, Aretha Cobbs (played by Angela Bassett) is a sweetheart.  WHAT THE HECK HAPPENED?   Go see the rest of the film.

This is a great story about family conflict and reconciliation.  Yes, as Naima eventually finds her way up to New York as well.  And poor Langston who was an utterly lost soul / lost person at the beginning of the story NOT KNOWING ANYTHING ABOUT HIS PAST and WANDERING ABOUT AIMLESSLY in the present exclaims, "THIS IS MY CHRISTMAS MIRACLE" -- Note that nothing yet was resolved but in the same room (a Church), stood his Mother, his Grandparents and EVEN HIS FATHER ... and SUDDENLY THERE WAS HOPE that it all could come to make sense.  And one just wants to cry ...

This is a great story with a universal theme which anyone with a heart could understand.

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