I couldn't swear to you that BLACK NATIVITY even counts as a movie. I mean, it was shot on film, so I guess it does. And it was directed by a solid filmmaker, Kasi Lemmons (TALK TO ME, EVE'S BAYOU), whos screenplay was adapted from a play by celebrated writer Langston Hughes. But beyond that, the evidence is slim.
Playing another single mother who abandons her child temporarily (as she did in THE INEVITABLE DEFEAT OF MISTER & PETE), Jennifer Hudson must ship her teenage son Langston (Jacob Latimore) from the mean streets of Baltimore to the seriously improved streets of Harlem to stay with her parents, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), neither of whom she speak any longer. Being a preacher's house, there are rules, none of which Langston refuses to follow. Langston might be the brattiest, most spoiled impoverished child ever in movie. He yells at his mother for not having enough money to take care of them one minute, then bitches at her the next for sending him to his grandparents so she can woks extra shifts to make money.
Oh, did I mention that BLACK NATIVITY is a musical? Oh, yes. Young Mr. Latimore has a lovely singing voice. And this isn't just a musical where people sing in church or when they're caroling; they sing their feelings on the street, in their rooms, on the bus, everywhere. And this being a Christmas-themed event, there's even an angel character, played by Mary J. Blige, who is always a delight to hear sing, but what the hell is she doing in this dopey movie? Not to mention the presence of rapper Nas (credited here as Nasir Jones) as a "street profit." And then there's actor/singer Tyrese Gibson, taking a break from the FAST & FURIOUS movies to sing a little and play a street-wise thug with connections to the Cobbs family that aren't tough to guess after about five minutes.
Langston is determined to get home to his mother, but once he falls asleep in church during Christmas Eve mass and has a vision of Joseph and Mary trying to find shelter in Harlem so her baby can be born, he decides that he should reunite his mother with her loving parents, who disappointed her with lack of support when she got pregnant young and out of wedlock.
But there are so many strange and awful things about BLACK NATIVITY that it's hard to isolate just one to hate the most. There's an extended sermon that Whitaker gives that might be the single most boring one a black preacher has ever given--and it never ends and never gets to the point. It's designed to be the reason Langston falls asleep, but if we beat him there, how will we know that?
Whitaker and Bassett are the best things in this movie, but even they don't seem to really be giving it their all. And after seeing them do such fantastic work in both THE BUTLER and "American Horror Story: Coven," respectively, in recent months, this seems like a tremendous step down. Watching BLACK NATIVITY not only hurt my head, but I believe it hurt my soul and may have caused a slow leak in my belief in a higher power. Everybody involved in this film is capable of so much better, and they know it. I'm willing to forgive and forget if they are. Amen.