A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that the musical Black Nativity is a modernization of Langston Hughes' 1961 play of the same name with a gospel twist. There's nothing particularly alarming for younger kids, but there are a couple of scenes when a young man has skirmishes with the law (he's mistakenly arrested for pickpocketing when he was just trying to return the wallet) and later tries to rob a pawnshop at gunpoint. Hughes' poetry is recited (or sung) throughout the movie, as are traditional gospel songs. The story of Jesus' birth becomes the driving force for an estranged family's reunion in this holiday musical.
What's the story?
Director Kasi Lemmons adapts poet Langston Hughes' Christmas play BLACK NATIVITY into a modern musical set in Hughes' beloved neighborhood of Harlem in New York City. In this retelling, a single mother (Jennifer Hudson) faces eviction from her Baltimore home right before Christmas, so she sends her 15-year-old son Langston (Jacob Latimore) on a bus to Manhattan stay with her estranged parents, Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett). Before he meets his grandparents, Langston is robbed, mistaken for a thief, and arrested. When he finally gets to know his grandparents, he's confused and curious about their lack of a contact. Langston sets out to help his mom find the money to save their house, only to discover through his grandfather's church Christmas pageant that it's family and faith he needs more than anything else.
Is it any good?
Families that celebrate Christmas and appreciate gospel music are in for a feel-good treat in Black Nativity. Featuring a mix of gospel and Christmas music, the film is a touching modernization of the nativity tale within a prodigal-child framing story. Hudson's voice is far superior to everyone else's in the movie -- with the exception of fellow professional R&B singer Mary J. Blige as a Christmas pageant angel and Hudson's impressive on-screen son Latimore. Whitaker's voice isn't on the same level, but he makes up for it with his performances as a well-known Harlem preacher who can't figure out how to reconcile with his uncommunicative daughter.
Parents who attend the movie with their children should take full advantage of the many references to Hughes' poems like "Dream Deferred" and traditional spirituals like "Motherless Child." In addition to being a Christmas story, the movie provides a context for the historical importance of Harlem to African Americans as well as references to the civil rights movement. This is not a perfect movie: parts are a bit too convenient to believe and others are overly sentimental, but those flaws can be forgiven considering it's a holiday film. The Christmas musical will appeal foremost to gospel lovers and practicing Christians, but anyone who sees it should appreciate the vocals and the family-first message.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the movie's connection to famous American poet Langston Hughes. What does the movie teach about Hughes' poems and their setting in Harlem? What do his poems have to do with the nativity story?
What did you think of this retelling of the nativity story in a contemporary setting? Did you appreciate the way the gospel music was integrated into the story?
Do you prefer religious holiday movies or secular ones? Discuss why or why not your family celebrates the religious aspects of Christmas.
- In theaters: November 27, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: April 15, 2014
- Cast: Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson
- Director: Kasi Lemmons
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Musical
- Topics: Holidays, Music and Sing-Along
- Run time: 93 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG
- MPAA explanation: thematic material, language and a menacing situation
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Common Sense Media's unbiased ratings are created by expert reviewers and aren't influenced by the product's creators or by any of our funders, affiliates, or partners.