Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Nas, Jacob Latimore
(Fox Searchlight; US theatrical: 27 Nov 2013 (General release); 2013)
As a kid growing up in the ‘60s, I missed most of the decade’s cultural excitement. I was too young for the Beatles, definitely beyond the reach of the drug and free love movements, and remember being admonished for flashing the “Peace” sign at passing cars. I was born at the beginning of the era and finally came of age just as John, Paul, George, and Ringo were calling it quits, religion was replacing rampant hedonism in the hearts of hippies, and anti-government protests turned into a Presidential abuse of power. Oddly enough, one of the era’s most important advances, the civil rights movement, was a hot topic of conversation in my house. Because of who my father was (a professional football player, then coach) and because of the team he worked for (Chicago Bears), the issue of race and racism was a constant influence in our lives.
My dad didn’t have a racist bone in his body. He had played with individuals of color throughout his college and professional career. He had great friends who were African American. He raised us to respect minorities and to shun those who would categorize individuals based on skin color or religion, not the quality of their character. The Bears were at the forefront of growing trend towards desegregation in sports. While other teams paired up athletes by race for travel and rooming assignments, the Monsters of the Midway initiated a policy where such decisions were made by position. As result, if a white and black player were both running backs, or linebackers, they were grouped together. Believe me, in the early days of my traveling with the team, such a set-up caused many a ‘less enlightened’ lodging establishment endless fits.
All of this is a way of establishing that at my dinner table were often guests and friends of many ethnicities and religious backgrounds. My neighborhood public school celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah every year. As a child, I knew all the songs and traditions for both holidays. At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we always invited single players and those without family to eat with us, many of whom would not fit the traditional “whites only” element of the time. Now, my father was no saint. He was violently homophobic, but that’s another concept for another piece. But my dad did insist that we know about other cultures and peoples, taking us to Temple during the traditional Jewish observances, talking at length with several of the Muslim families that lived in the area (I particularly enjoyed the stories about taking the mandated pilgrimage to Mecca) and, during that most tenuous of times, the late ‘60s, visiting Southside Chicago churches to attend services with fellow coaches and players.
It was there, on a frigid December night, that I first experience Black Nativity. I didn’t know who Langston Hughes was, and my only real frame of reference with the Birth of Christ came from the Greek Orthodox faith I was brought up in… and A Charlie Brown Christmas. So when we sat toward the back of a massive metropolitan cathedral, a collection of white specks among a decidedly more colorful collection of individuals, I couldn’t have been less prepared for what I was about to see. Hughes’ overview of the traditional tale was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Certainly I had been to black churches, but this was different. This was part celebration, part reflection, part atonement, part challenge, an attempt by a marginalized member of society to speak to his own and share something the majority had long since removed from their December 25th designs.
From what I remember, the first part centered on the Nativity itself, individuals taking on the traditional roles while uplifting gospel songs and spirituals fill the air. Part two was then moved to modern times, the church playing a part in an allegorical tale of acceptance. I remember being whisked away by the music, moved by the pageantry, and confused by the need for such an alternate interpretation. When I was older, the boarding school I attended also took us into the city of Chicago to see Black Nativity. Some of the songs were different, and this version had a decidedly more modern feel, but I again was wowed by how powerful and moving the experience was. While others in my class were too busy showing off their stunted world views (i.e. making horribly inappropriate jokes), I had to hold back tears.
So imagine my shock when I sat down to a morning press screening of Kasi Lemmons “loose” interpretation of Hughes’ seminal work. Granted, my particular frame of reference with the material was decades old, but I still thought I knew what to expect. Then a young man with a surly, street wise attitude came on screen and the first of several original songs were sung… and I was lost. Completely lost. This was not the Black Nativity I remembered from my youth. It was nothing like the fond memories in my head. As the movie went on (the story focuses on a teenager sent to live with grandparents he never knew existed while his single mother struggles to find a way out of their present financial predicament) I grew angrier and angrier.
I also came to understand something: Black Nativity clearly wasn’t written “for me”. This version of it was never intended for me. As a 52-year-old white male of Lebanese and Swedish descent, I was not the intended target audience. Nothing spoke to me. Nothing inspired me. Sure, my memories might have been tainting such a reaction, but I was floored at how miserable the movie made me. Now, as a professional critic, I try to remove myself from the personal to reflect on the product itself. I tend to divorce myself from the visceral and work, instead, from the analytical. Still, I couldn’t shake my distaste for Ms. Lemmons’ interpretation. It wasn’t just the awful original songs, the lack of any real Gospel chops, and the wasting of someone I adore, Ms. Mary J. Blige. No, there was something, something else that still stings when I think about it.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a piece about The Best Man Holiday, and was told by a commenter that the reason I didn’t “get” what Malcolm D. Lee was driving at in his otherwise ordinary film was because I didn’t have enough affluent African American friends. If I did, I would realize just how accurate and articulate the movie was. Others, including many in my profession, balked at my references to Tyler Perry since, to them, the African American media phenom is an affront to everything they hold dear. Now I have personally seen approximately 95% of what Perry has put out, and I find his almost instantaneous dismissal by those supposedly practicing the art of film criticism to be disheartening. It’s like a child declaring that broccoli is bad before truly tasting it. It’s like group think peer pressuring based on trailers and an accidental viewing of one of Perry’s numerous works on TV.
If you really “watched” what Tyler Perry was doing you’d understand my unease with Black Nativity. The versions I remember from my youth had a more universal, if still decidedly African American spin. America was far from diverse back then, but stagers of the Hughes play strove to be as inclusive as they could or wanted. Perry, on the other hand, introduced the entertainment business to the highly profitable, incredibly selective niche. He argued—and then proved outright—that African Americans loved to go to the theater and to the movies and that their needs were being grossly underserved by the mainstream. After making nearly a billion dollars with his various enterprises, Hollywood has started to take notice. Offering up a sequel to a film that was made 16 years before was only the first example in this new narrow strategy.
Now we have Black Nativity, a movie where a sign stating “No Whites Allowed” should be posted outside every theater. It’s a movie that makes no attempt at inclusion. It’s almost like science fiction, functioning within a realm almost completely devoid of any frame of reference except the one its creating. It will definitely speak to its demo because it is crafted to do nothing but. The new storyline slapped onto the material feels like melodramatic Tyler Perry-lite and the desire to inspire should have the targeted viewer weeping and cheering. But as for the outsider looking in, a Caucasian like me who could sit in a darkened Southside Chicago church in 1969 and be uplifted by a simple story told in a stunning way, I was angry. I wanted better for Langston Hughes. I wanted better for Black Nativity.
But as I said before, my opinion won’t and doesn’t matter. I don’t have enough affluent African American friends. I’m not black. I don’t understand the struggles of racism (though, as someone whose heritage derives in part from the Middle East, I’ve had my “aren’t you a Muslim/dirty raghead?” moments). No, Kasi Lemmons used Langston Hughes as a way to channel her grief over the loss of her sister and to speak to a people she knows will accept her approach. She doesn’t care if I enjoy it because she knows I don’t matter. Her movie, modestly budgeted, will make money whether some overweight aging white guy shows up to a screening or not. It may not make Madea bank, but after its 2013 theatrical run, you can bet that the producers project a fiscally sound seasonal showcase on cable and on home video.
Sadly, I can already see the reaction to this rant. “Now you know how we feel,” someone will inevitably argue, perhaps even referencing one of several white actors/directors as exclusive of the minority perspective, and I see their point. Hollywood used to practice vast institutional racism, reducing actors and artists of color down to cruel stereotypes. It’s a position they’ve barely moved from in a near century. True, for decades, the African American (or other ethnic experience) has been more or less removed from the mainstream experience, but this doesn’t excuse Black Nativity, it just explains it. I didn’t like the movie. I am sure many will. But in the end, it’s not because I don’t enjoy the source. In fact, it remains one of my fondest childhood memories. No, I don’t like being left out even when I am trying to be tuned in. Maybe that’s the point after all.