Jacob Latimore stars as Langston, a grumpy Baltimore teen whose cash-strapped single mom (Jennifer Hudson) sends him to New York City to spend Christmas with his estranged grandparents – the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett). A fish out of water, Langston is amazed at the comparatively lavish life his strict, church-going grandparents lead in their massive Harlem brownstone, and desperate to learn the truth about why his mother cut them out of his life and hers for so long. Old family secrets begin to emerge, and Langston embarks on a rocky journey of self-discovery as he uncovers more about his mother’s past.
Though it starts off well, Black Nativity begins to lose momentum and gradually becomes a highly predictable (if well-intentioned and musically terrific) story, with plot “twists” that arrive with anvil-like subtlety. There are no genuine surprises to be found in Langston’s misadventures and the drama that does emerge rings somewhat false. Lemmons, whose previous films include the stirring Eve’s Bayou and the entertaining Petey Greene biopic Talk to Me here delivers something that, for me, was overly formulaic instead of fantastic.
Performance-wise, though, there are a number of standouts. Whitaker is, as ever, wonderful – stern but heartbreaking at the same time. Bassett is warm and motherly and endearing. Tyrese Gibson delivers a nice turn as a streetwise hustler with lessons to teach, and Grace Gibson makes a strong and memorable debut as Maria, a pregnant homeless woman whose beautiful voice turns her pain into song.
Did Black Nativity make me cry? Yes. Does it pull exactly the right heartstrings for a Christmas movie? You bet. But will it become a holiday classic? Despite its pedigree, probably not.
I’m a little surprised that the home video release of this film wasn’t held until the holidays. Rather it whimpers to home video during the springtime. Regardless, in addition to a trailer and some deleted scenes, there are a couple handfuls of brief, short-attention-span featurettes. Topics include the music featuring in the film, the shooting location in Harlem, the young actor Jacob Latimore, playwright Langston Hughes, and fun with a photoshoot.