Throughout the way, Langston does interact with some fairly familiar characters: Jo-Jo and Maria are having a child, a chap named Isaiah on the bus reveals some harsh truths about feeling like a motherless child (more on this later), and someone called Angel stops him from walking out in front of a taxi. But these feel so shoe-horned in that it's distracting even during the film. Isaiah and Angel both disappear after these interactions, only to return in the final dream sequence (Angel with a huge pair of wings, of course), and it reeks as if the writer really wanted to write about learning something from faith but didn't really know what.
Ho-ho-who's in it?
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, Academy Award nominee Angela Bassett, Grammy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, AMA winner Tyrese Gibson and nine times Grammy Award winner Mary J. Blige. This isn't your kid's nativity production.
I've watched various films that allude to serious problems (for instance, Jingle All The Way addresses a work-heavy father's distant relationship with his son), but Black Nativity is probably the first film on the Christmas list to really tackle something head-on. It's not a particularly happy film (despite being a Christmas musical, consider that for a moment), so the strength of the cast is an absolute deal-breaker.
Being a musical, everyone on the team gets a singing part, and the acting-to-singing ratio is well balanced for each performer. Whitaker and Gibson stay more on the acting side, whilst Mary J Blige probably only speaks ten words and sings the rest. Making the cast play to their strengths is, I think, one of the key things that sells this throughout. It's almost like watching a variety show, where a rap by Nas is quickly followed by a monologue from Forest Whitaker. I'd be thoroughly entertained to see a rebalanced version though, where Gibson does all the singing and MJB only gets a couple of harmonies in.
★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ As said above, it's really not very fun at all. It's deeply serious and sober; it features one of the most broken families I've ever seen; the plot repeatedly suggests it's about to take a dark turn.
The film ends with the family uniting together and singing Be Grateful, though it's not altogether clear what they're grateful for. Throughout the song, you don't feel like it will last or that anyone's learnt anything. The message is along the lines of "if you're having problems in your family, just ignore them and be grateful that it could be worse".
★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ There are some really good songs in here, and plenty of odd ones too. Langston's first song is Motherless Child, a traditional Negro spiritual, which really loses its depth when sung with no emotion on a coach. This, however, is quickly followed by Hush Child (Get You Through This Silent Night) which totally ticks the harmony boxes.
Also worth noting is Rise Up Shepherd and Follow, with Mary J Blige singing the traditional lyrics before Nas cuts in with some of the most out-of-places lyrics of 2013:
Yeah, I'm the noble one. The Obi Wan Kenobi one.
The real musical highlight though comes during the actual play-within-a-play production of Black Nativity where Forest Whitaker gives a passionate and highly musical sermon. Featuring a full gospel choir, a really strange robe-change and some solid lighting, it is exactly the sort of service I want to spend my Christmas at.
NB: The soundtrack is on Spotify, but it's missing three of the most important songs for reasons I can't speculate over.
★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
As expected, this film is deliriously strange. It tackles some serious topics, constantly ramps up in severity and features some solid acting and singing. Yet its ending message is confusing, and I really don't feel like I took anything away from it. The whole film was entertaining, but I'm certain that's more by sharing it with others than because of the content itself.
I'd be really interested to know what others think of this because, several hours later, I'm still really not sure what I did.
Immediately after we finished, I asked the room some questions about what they thought of the film. I took some notes, and paraphrase the following responses:
Is this the best Christmas film you've ever seen?
Abena: Definitely. Best film of all time.
Nat: It's the mother I always dreamed of.
Greg: I'm not sure about "Christmas" film. I think it could've happened at any time of year.
Nat: You can't have a black nativity at Easter.
What was your favourite line?
Jess: "My holidays / are hollow days." (Jess continued to repeat this at any prompt she could.)
Nat: "You're called Langston Jones? Like the poet?" [beat] "You know it."
Paul: I would've loved him to say "You recognise it."
Abena: There are so many better responses.
Greg: "I'm the noble one / the Obi Wan Kenobi one". I still don't get it.
Nat: I'm unsure of the relevance of Obi Wan Kenobi to my faith, but I'm certainly open to the idea.
Who was your least favourite character?
Greg: I just don't get him. He's an awful person.
Nat: His journey to "this is my Christmas miracle!" was a total mess.
Jess: There were certainly some loose ends.
Paul: And the timing of his change of heart makes no sense! [He had a religious epiphany, but it didn't seem to kick in properly until half an hour later when he was trying to buy a gun for reasons we still don't know.]
Paul: Actually, Tyson [Langston's Dad] was pretty awful. He specifically timed to sell his son a gun so that he'd have to leave church in the middle of the service.
Greg: He's a pot-stirrer, that one.
Nat, Abena, Jess, what's your view from a religious perspective?
Nat: I've never tripped out about a pregnant person walking around New York and ending up giving birth in Tyrese Gibson's tarpaulin tent. But I'm not saying it couldn't happen.
Abena: Every God reference was like "Yeah, fair enough".
Nat: That reverend was terrible though.
Jess: Very hypocritical.
Nat: I guess that was the point, but I don't think he learnt anything.
Abena: I disagree, he seemed to take something on board.
Nat: See! This film is so deep!
Jess: Our carol service needs to up its game.
Nat: We certainly shouldn't have called it "white nativity". And there aren't enough robe changes.
Nat: There are some nuggets of Christianity in there. But the film didn't have a point.
Jess: I think it did have a point.
Abena: It's supposed to be about redemption and restoration.
Paul: And being grateful...
Nat: Be grateful for your cheating boyfriend, and your hypocrisy!
Abena: As a Christian, I'm confused what message this was trying to send from a Christian perspective.
Nat: The only way to fill these hollow days is with Jesus.
Nat: Paul, as a Godless hellbound, what did you make of it?
Paul: The message was a combination of being heavy-handed and not being sure what to say. Like being beaten round the head with a sieve.
Nat: If you want a clearer message, come to church some time.
Paul: I will.
Nat: Why not tomorrow?
Jess: Come to the carol service!
Greg: Is it just traditional carols or are you doing some other songs? Maybe we'll hear Motherless Child?
Paul: Pitch the Mary J Blige/Nas number with the Obi Wan Kenobi line.
Any thoughts on the direction/technical production?
Abena: I didn't like the lighting.
Paul: They started shining cross-shaped lights on people, in case you didn't know it was religious. Also, the ways the segued into songs was really bad. Particularly when they would have characters appear together when they were in different places, where most musicals would cut between them.
Nat: I've seen church productions with better cameras than that was shot on. Traditional film cameras have built-in picture softening, which is something digital cameras lack. That's what makes it look so wrong.
Abena: Oh, that's what it was!
Paul: There were a lot of moments where they'd build up to a song but not convert. So the music would swell, and then he'd just go to bed.
Abena: Yeah, that was really weird.
Greg: Maybe the Director's cut has additional songs that they awkwardly cut out.
So, did you learn anything?
Abena: I learnt so much!
Nat: To call it transformative is not an understatement.
Abena: I learnt who Langston Hughes was.
Jess: I learnt a lot from the lyrics. I'll definitely reuse some of those phrases.
All: I learnt to be grateful!
Abena: I don't know where you guys are getting this gratitude idea from.
Abena: I learnt that a lot can happen in 48 hours. [The timeframe we think the whole film took place over.] Shakespeare was not wrong.
Jess: Are you seriously comparing this to Shakespeare?
Nat: Genuinely I have no idea what the purpose of that film was.
Paul: I think they hadn't thought the ending through so just threw in an open-ended song that could fit into any situation.
Abena: If we take out the song about being grateful, what have we really learned?
Jess: Holidays. Hollow days.