Written by by Nathaniel Thomas II
It was the 18th of November (2013), I was afforded the opportunity to be apart of the “domestic” premiere of this new film entitled “Black Nativity”. A visual and audible tapestry of method acting, gradual birthings within each character, a sonically tight musical bed provided through the supervision of Mr. Raphael Saadiq, a meaningful message of redemption through expressed and understood truth, and the gritty and darkened streets of a Harlem winter, all collectively serve to provide much imagery for a story that is headed for a theater near everyone, come Christmas.
It was quite the event, I arrived in time enough to find a seat in the upper balcony, passing the pictures (along the stairway) of past soul/R&B icons (such as Clyde McPhatter and others), I found my seat and settled in for the visual adventure. The first character we’re introduced to is the young and troubled “Langston” (played by Jacob Lattimore), speaking and singing in the 1st person, Langston is the self-designated protector of his overworked/well-intentioned mother (played by Jenifer Hudson). Expressing himself expertly through youthful expressions and a tangible struggle with the state-of-things in he and his mother’s household, “Langston” is faced with a hard instruction from his mother (after losing out on hours at work and bills mounting by the minute), and that is to put away his pride and fear and go to visit his grandparents (who he’s never seen) over in Harlem.
He boards the Peter Pan bus line to Times Square, to be met and taken in by his grandparents (“The Cobbs”), upstanding members of the black upper echelon of respected ministers and minsters’ wives. He is supremely welcomed to the new environment by having his book bag stolen, and thereby placing him in a precarious situation that leads to a short stint in “lockup”, until his grandfather (The Reverend Cobb) can show up to bail him out and take him home. “The Cobbs” (portrayed expertly by Angela Bassett and Forrest Whitaker), besides feeding and doting upon their young grandson, seem a bit uneasy or torn as to how much to share with Langston, who is full of questions and wonder about the distance that’s been placed between his mother and her parents.
And so upon being granted clearance to move about the cold streets, with one instruction from Mother Cobb (Angela Bassett) to “walk like he has a purpose”, Young Langston is off into un-chartered territory in Harlem, NY…Besides constantly taking notice of the young and gifted couple with a baby on the way, he runs smack dab into one of the young men he met in lock-up for a short while. Tyrese Gibson’s character (ever-evolving) provides a much needed reality summation for “Langston” (Lattimore), who blinded with a fear of the un-shared and untold (along with a little colorful youthful angst) seems to be running “wild” in search of money that he believes will cure all that ails his mother (Hudson), and to that end his own strife. The quest to calm the young man is met by a few, including his Grandfather (The Reverend Cobb, played by Forrest Whitaker), he is led (through lecture) through Cobb’s tough upbringing, his honorable involvement in the civil rights movement, the inception and toil in bringing up a congregation in the middle of Harlem’s tough neighborhood, and even poetically waxing over a prized possession afforded him through trial and culture on his “come up” in the world.
Though taken note of, Young Langston absent-mindedly diminishes the worth of the conversation and “gifting” of sorts, and sets upon a new scheme with which to gather the “coins for change”, and entertains a tough-as-nails pawn shop owner (in the person of veteran actor Vonde Curtis-Hall) in hopes of securing the dollars he so needs. He is met with another lecture on the importance of the family that he is so keen on running from, and sent about his business without Curtis-Hall missing a beat, through clenched teeth and good intention. The whole affair is handled with a care sorely missing from today’s ethnic representation of rearing the black family, in film-making. Whitaker takes great pains to present what he feels is inherently important for a young black man that he loves to know and carry with him daily, and as well takes effort not to violate (as the kids say) the well over stood wishes of his daughter, Langston’s mother (who ran off in the face of a youthful and un-prepped and un-respected pregnancy).
From here till the film’s closing we are faced with the basic tenants of accepted Christianity. You get to see the love, the faith through circumstance, the patience through misunderstanding, the hope and yearning for better while living the worse, and an expectancy toward a God we don’t see to help us and guide us to exits and entrance in this crazy life, that many of us have no chance but to walk out and live. I was very much impressed with the technical aspects of this film; the sequences where we are treated to the gifting of vocalists Jacob Lattimore (Langston), Langston’s mom (powerful Chi-Town vocalist Jennifer Hudson), Tyrese Gibson (slowly rising to new heights in his acting, the singing at this point a given), even Forrest Whitaker (who holds a mighty note while in church), all capsulate and flow with the story and make a whole lot of sense, it’s not simply a vehicle for the soundtrack. Soundtrack Supervisor-Raphael Saadiq keeps a tight reign on the inflections and timber of the music, and of course Nasir “NAS” Jones is stellar as the ghetto poet who is always in the midst of things and dropping science in rhyme and meter, a sound and family familiar film for your holiday and for your heart.
—(NYC contributor for Tekoa Gospel Music News., NATHANIEL THOMAS III)