The art of the edit can be seen throughout the trailer for Black Nativity, writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ radical reworking of Langston Hughes’ celebrated 1961 play. An expertly cut two minutes, this preview makes the movie look like a major event, an inspirational and invigorating musical making its case for becoming a future Christmas classic. Unfortunately, the film itself is a disappointment, a flat endeavor so tonally off that it fails to stir much emotion. Upon revisiting the trailer, it’s easy to see how I was duped: Much of the two minutes is powered by the singing of Jennifer Hudson, and her incredible voice would make even a laundry detergent commercial seem like an occasion to stand up and cheer.
Hudson plays Naima, a Baltimore single mom whose impending eviction forces her to ship her teenage son Langston (Jacob Latimore) to Harlem to live with her parents until she can take care of him again. Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) haven’t spoken to their estranged daughter Naima in years, but as Christians, they’re not about to turn away their own grandson. But Langston isn’t happy with the arrangement, and his desire to nab enough money to reunite him with his mom places him in the company of a shady character named Loot (Tyrese Gibson), a street huckster with the potential to lead the boy down the wrong path.
Lemmons has proven herself to be an accomplished filmmaker with such interesting works as Eve’s Bayou and Talk to Me, so it’s surprising to note just how lackluster this turns out to be, with its simplistic storyline and frequently drab camerawork almost as much of a drag as the amateurish central performance by Latimore. Hudson’s singing and Whitaker’s acting compensate somewhat, but for a truly inventive and uplifting African-American piece set in New York during the Yuletide season, skip spending the bucks on Black Nativity and watch Run-DMC’s “Christmas in Hollis” music video on YouTube instead.