Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christmas in Harlem: BLACK NATIVITY

Kasi Lemmons’ Black Nativity has an honest spirituality that can’t be faked – a compassion for mankind and desire for reconciliation that swirls up against the backdrop of Christmas Eve. It settles its musical melodrama in redemption and forgiveness that’s religious in the best sense of the word. It’s also safe to say that it’ll be the only film you’ll see that has both Langston Hughes and the Nativity story as complimentary poetic inspiration. The opening credits – overlaid with light touches of animation, scratchy frames, and high-grain photography – provided by Terence Nance, are a good introduction to the world of the film, making rough, casual, deliberately fake magic out of everyday experience. Hughes’ play Black Nativity, first performed in 1961, retold the Nativity story with an entirely black cast, filling the theater with gospel carols echoing from the rafters, bringing black history into what is traditionally, and erroneously, a white tale in western imagination. Lemmons’ film uses a production of the play as a climactic revelation, dreamlike and swirling in symbolic pasts and presents, as it unveils the necessary emotional destinations to settle her characters’ problems.

For her characters certainly have problems. They are recognizable, but done up in a broad style with emotion and theme plainly stated every step of the way. The story, thinly sketched, follows a Baltimore teenager (Jacob Latimore) whose mother (Jennifer Hudson), facing financial difficulties, sends him to spend Christmas in Harlem with her estranged parents, the grandparents he never knew he had. Once he arrives at his grandparents’ home, he finds himself staying in what he calls “a black people museum,” with a warm, loving grandmother (Angela Bassett) and stern but kind reverend grandfather (Forest Whitaker) who tells him of the importance of knowing your history. The older man proudly shows off a pocket watch given to him by none other than Martin Luther King, Jr. But the teen is uncomfortable, worried about his mother and their future together and preoccupied with what, exactly, led to his mother’s estrangement from these lovely people.

It’s a film about the new and the old, bringing the past into the present and allowing for healing of a true and deep kind. It’s a big-hearted parable that’s often deliberately symbolic, overtly making this particular family’s problems, financial difficulties and familial estrangement, stand in for larger ideas of societal neglect, paths not taken, and solutions generously offered better late than never. It’s most extraordinary sequence, a casually hallucinatory musical sermon of magical realism that floats out of a character’s mind as he falls asleep in church on Christmas Eve, blends characters from the Nativity and the modern-day storyline. A pregnant homeless teen (Grace Gibson) is at once herself and Mary. A man (Tyrese Gibson) the teen sees in jail is suddenly himself and also a man who finds the couple room to have their baby. A congregant with hair the color of a silvery star (Mary J. Blige) is an angel singing halleluiahs to a worshipful crowd. Past and present collide with dreamlike movement.

Outside of this sequence, the movie is set in a contemporary setting that is heightened by musical numbers staged with characters in isolation, rarely joined by others explicitly. They stand alone, belting their hearts out, sometimes joined by others in imagined city spaces with fantastical spotlights beaming down as they stand, arms open, in the middle of empty Harlem streets, flurries of snow mingling with chilled breath sharply photographed by Anastas N. Michos. The songs, a mix of great gospel classics and lesser original compositions by Raphael Saadiq, at times speak perhaps too literally to themes explored with clunky lyrics, but it’s so big, broad, and overtly expressive that it’s hard to resist.

After all, for these characters lost and separated from each other, it is music that joins them, an expression of purpose that will culminate, eventually, in the Black Nativity production at the Reverend’s church. There the family finds the closure they need and the ability to move forward that they’ve long denied themselves in a moving moment of public spiritual convergence. It’s a lot, a conventional and thin – preachy, even – family drama. It’s resolved easily, especially after its pile-up of contrivances and revelations. But, hey, it’s Christmas, and the movie has a song on its lips and forgiveness in its heart. It may be unrestrained, but it is imaginative, heartfelt, and has a nice spirit about it.

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