Go see the film “Black Nativity” and be edified and moved. So far this movie is the Christmas movie of 2013.
Last week we were in Baltimore, Maryland for the 65th annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society and we were struck by the rich African-American heritage of the City. As the chief city of a border state during the USA’s Civil War whose primal section of track birthed the railway system that still crosses the USA, Baltimore was the destination of the “Underground Railroad” that carried escaping slaves to freedom. The great statesman Frederick Douglass fled here in the disguise of a sailor (claiming he never took his [non-existent] papers to sea) and Baltimore now has a national site and museum in his honor. Everywhere Baltimore’s African-American legacy is honored today, but in 1924, when the sensitive young poet, James Mercer Langston Hughes was working as a busboy in Washington, D.C., the east coast along with the rest of the nation was still oppressed by segregation and estrangement between people groups. In one of the most provocative poems about oppression in the North, “Incident,” fellow Harlem Renaissance poet, Countee Cullen described “riding in old Baltimore,” as an eight year old, “heart-filled, head-filled with glee,” but after “smiling” at another traveling child and having that smile returned with a rude gesture and a racial slur, “I saw the whole of Baltimore/From May until December/Of all the things that happened there/That’s all that I remember.” Like all of the USA, it was a city that needed reconciliation and forgiveness.
“Black Nativity,” an updated adaptation of a play by Langston Hughes (built from his own memories of abandonment by his father and the foreclosure of a childhood home), seeks to bring the theme of reconciliation to a wider audience this Christmas season through the poignant examination of an estranged family, seen through the eyes of a teenager named “Langston,” in honor of his mother’s favorite poet.
Reared by a single mother and about to be evicted from their home, young Langston is sent from Baltimore to Harlem in a journey reminiscent of Langston Hughes own intellectual journey from mid and then eastern coastal America to join the Harlem renaissance, where African-American creativity blossomed in the early 1900s, producing some of the USA’s most enduring masterpieces of art. But, the young protagonist first finds Harlem to be a series of “mean streets” where art is in sanctuary in the black church.
Depicting good as fresh and beautiful as it truly is in its profound simplicity, as Simone Weil points out in her essays “Morality and Literature” and “On the Responsibility of Writers,” is extremely difficult because art, taking one step away from life, flattens out the real dimensions of life. Evil, which is already shallow, becomes interesting as it fills out, due to its varied guises, but goodness loses its depth and becomes boring. To avoid this dilemma and depict good as attractive and interesting, evil as repulsive and boring, as they are in real life, is the constant challenge of art. Many films fail to do that. After all, the Apostle Paul eloquently urges us to “fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8 NLT). Ted Baehr, of the Movieguide, in his treasure chest of a book, How to Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul), explains “We all know what truth is: veracity, sincerity, genuineness, conformity to rule, exactness, and correctness. Truth is the opposite of falsehood. Truth is often defined as that which conforms to reality. As Christians, we know that truth conforms ultimately to the Word of God. Truth is also necessary, even in the most imaginative fiction…otherwise it will seem shallow, empty, and false to its audience.”[i]
“Black Nativity” manages to capture truth and goodness without stumbling across the line into hoke by a skillful use of songs that move the plot forward – e.g., the mother (the powerful Jennifer Hudson) singing her anguish as the bus carries her only child out of her life, the grandmother (the wondrous Angela Bassett) seated at her piano giving voice to her regrets - and all of this propelled by artful direction by Kasi Lemmons, aided by William Horberg and the ubiquitous T.D. Jakes, whose presence has been felt these days in many positive films, and deft performances by Hudson, Tyrese Gibson, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nas, Jacob Latimore, anchored by two of the greatest actors working today, Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett. Surround sound featuring long-term singing star Mary J. Blige and a choir we wish we all had every Sunday builds on its impact. While critics may carp at minutia most of us filmgoers never see and would care less about if we did, the overall effect is potent. The dream sequence alone, where the birth of Jesus is retold, using the characters of the present story, in images that transform present Harlem so that we glimpse the great artistic legacy of its past, is the best use of dream narrative we’ve encountered in many years.
Langston Hughes himself was a troubled artist, struggling with self-identity, and expressing his pain in enduring words. Had he lived to see his vision for forgiveness and reconciliation adapted into this fine, independent film, he may have found a greater measure of the peace he himself was seeking.
Bill and Aida
[i] Ted Baehr, How to Succeed in Hollywood (Without Losing Your Soul) (Washington, D.C.: WND Books, 2011), 70.