Christmas is a joyous time. That's what everyone tells us, anyway. It's a time of family and friends, singing and laughing and present-opening and, most importantly, a time to mark the day when the Light of the universe came to visit for a spell.
But when you don't feel like laughing or singing, and when tragedy or stress have come to call, Christmas can be painful. At times, the light of Jesus' birth can feel so far away. And, ironically, that can feel especially true at Christmas.
It certainly does for Langston and his single mom, Naima. They're in a hard spot this winter. Instead of presents under the tree, Naima's been given an eviction notice. She'll need to come up with $5,000 in overdue rent or spend Christmas on the curb. It's not like she has time to make extra money, either. She's already got two jobs. And there's no way 15-year-old Langston can come up with that kind of cash. Not legally, at any rate.
With a heavy heart, Naima sends Langston to her estranged parents' house for the Christmas season, promising to retrieve him as soon as she can. Langston doesn't want to go: He's never even met his grandparents, and spending the holidays with them seems like the worst sort of punishment. But he doesn't seem to have much of a choice in the matter as his mother shuffles him onto a bus to Harlem.
At first, the visit sinks lower than even Langston could've feared. His stuff is stolen as soon as he arrives. Then he's thrown in jail when someone accuses him of trying to steal a wallet—not the best first impression he could make on his strict preacher granddad and his prim-and-proper grandma. When they get home, the first meal begins with a long-winded prayer, with Grandfather Cornell Cobbs asking God to guide this wayward boy (and grace him with a belt to hold his pants up).
But then Grandpa shows Langston his prized possession—an engraved pocket watch given to him by Martin Luther King Jr. himself.
It's a beautiful watch, Langston sees. Its significance is unquestioned. And as the good reverend puts it back in its box and closes it in his desk drawer, Langston begins to wonder: Could it be worth as much as $5,000?
Black Nativity gives us characters at a crossroads, particularly its young focal point, Langston. Already the lad is heading down some questionable pathways. And sequestered in his grandparents' posh brownstone building—knowing his mother is on the brink of homelessness—Langston's tempted to make some very bad decisions for what he considers the very best of intentions.
While we can laud Langston's desire to help his mother, his willingness to break the law would likely (the movie suggests) lead the boy to a life of crime and poverty and addiction—the life that claimed his own father … the father he never knew. Thankfully, almost every character in the film conspires to push Langston in a better direction. Cornell tries to guide him toward faith and instill in him a strict sense of right and wrong. Grandma Aretha coddles him with love and tenderness. Even folks on the street—people who've been touched by Rev. Cobb's preaching and love—show him, both directly and indirectly, that Langston's grandfather is a pretty great guy and is pointing him in the right direction.
This is not to say that the people around Langston are without blemish. And yet, for the most part, they're trying to do the right things now, for themselves, for God and for Langston. The teen is showered with both truth and grace—and he still almost goes awry in spite of it all. So, in the end, the real hero of this story, it would seem, the only one who can truly save Langston, is God, who (it's suggested) brings the film's cast of characters together for a Christmas miracle.
"How do you keep faith when so much bad is all around?" Langston asks his grandmother. Aretha says that if you look carefully, you can see signs of God's love in everything.
And you don't even have to look very hard to find it in this movie. Jesus is the prime player here, and His birth—dramatized in Cobbs' church through a lavish production called Black Nativity—becomes the conduit to Langston's own salvation story.
Despite Naima singing that "there's no testament without a test of faith" as she puts Langston on the bus, it's pretty obvious that Langston was not raised in a particularly religious environment. He's surprised, then bored and annoyed, as his grandfather prays before dinner. When Christmas Eve rolls around and Cornell talks about seeing Langston and Aretha at church later, Langston says, "Well, count me out. I don't do church." The reverend begs to differ, quoting Joshua: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."
So Langston goes—and dozes off as the elaborate Christmas pageant begins. In this subconscious dreamlike state, he becomes a part of the Nativity story himself—the story told by Luke in the Bible and retold by renowned African-American poet Langston Hughes. He experiences the birth of Christ, in that way, firsthand, ancient Bethlehem blending with modern Harlem, the story's cast of characters becoming the people he meets there. He's moved deeply, seeing Christ in the flesh, falling on his knees before the infant King and celebrating His birth.
[Spoiler Warning] His ethereal experience does not change him immediately, though. "They can pray all they want," he fumes shortly after he wakes up. "It's not for me." And he still feels like he must do something terrible to save his mother. But Langston does ultimately find his way back to church with his mother and facilitates a family-wide showing of both contrition and grace. "It's time to forgive, Mom," he tells her. "It's time to be redeemed. And it's time to come home."
On the bus we see a man reading the Bible and telling Langston that he was named Isaiah, after the prophet (who predicted the Messiah's coming). Cobbs' church, the Holy Resurrection Baptist Church, is shown as a force for good in the community, and we meet a number of people it has helped. Aretha sings a long-distance duet with Naima, talking about how even though we've all sinned against God, "He loves me still." Traditional Christmas carols and original songs with spiritual messages run throughout the movie. We hear that "unanswered prayers make you weak."
Naima grew great with child—Langston—when she was just 15, and it was this development that instigated the bitter split with her parents (even though they still loved her dearly). And we also see another young girl who's pregnant with her boyfriend. During Langston's dream, that same girl—transformed into Mary—is ushered into a tent and gives birth. (Langston and the camera are allowed in only after the fact.)
Langston's wrestled down by police and nearly hit by a car. He engages in some tough talk with some thugs while in a holding cell. A gun gets pointed at someone.
Crude or Profane Language
Three uses of "d‑‑n" and one use of "h‑‑‑." God's name is misused two or three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The movie insinuates that one of the characters Langston meets deals drugs. He tells Langston that he can sell him "anything you can think of." Langston tells the man that he's clean. There's a reference to not acting like a "crackhead."
Other Negative Elements
Langston steals, lies and treats his grandparents disrespectfully. Before he lands in Harlem, the boy was disrupting stores and painting graffiti.
"The Lord's greatest gift must be to live a life without regrets," Aretha says. "But we're so human."
As such, it's a gift not bestowed upon very many of us—and certainly no one in Black Nativity receives such a boon. Everyone but Langston is torn by regret, being punished and punishing themselves for a misspent youth or a horrible mistake. Langston does some things he could and should regret, too. And yet, by God's grace, he comes to the credits relatively unsullied.
Yes, by God's grace. There's really no way around that central truth here. God saves Langston. He saves Naima. He saves everyone, really—His divine forgiveness echoed through the forgiveness these characters grant one another. Christmas, at its core, is all about Light coming from heaven to illuminate our darkest days—and that message brilliantly shines through.
Black Nativity isn't a gritty, realistic story of sin and forgiveness. It's a musical, after all, a fable of sorts, and as such the logical liberties taken in the plotting of it can be themselves, perhaps, forgiven. The music here is beautiful. The message elevating. Some of America's finest actors and artists have lent their hands to this project, and the results can be soul-stirring.