Langston Hughes is probably my favorite poet.
That fact should have helped me appreciate Black Nativity, the Christmas film based loosely on his holiday libretto. Instead, paradoxically, the film carries its Hughes pedigree around its neck like an iron albatross. Too subdued and serious to let Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige let it rip, the film doesn't update or adapt Hughes's work so much as build a soap opera hedge around it.
The film opens with single mom Naima (Hudson) facing eviction. She sends her son Langston to live with his grandparents. The family is estranged, and Langston doesn't understand why his grandparents (Whitaker and Bassett) are willing to shelter him but can't seem to reconcile with his mother: "You got this tight crib, all this stuff. Why can't you help her?" When he asks his grandfather, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs, what kind of parents they are to his mother, Whitaker delivers the film's best line: "The heartbroken kind."
None of the frame story is in Hughes's Black Nativity, which the poet subtitled "A Gospel Song Play." Writer/director Kasi Lemmons invokes Hughes, but never really channels him. We get an early reference to Hughes's most famous poem, "Harlem," when the poet's namesake says of his mother, "Whatever dreams she had for me got deferred in Baltimore . . ." That poem (which was also the source for the title of Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun") gets a fuller rendition from a character in the third act. Beyond that—and the protagonist's name—the movie's connection to Hughes outside of the nativity production is tenuous.
Also, although "Harlem" is Hughes's most famous poem, it feels strangely out of place in the movie, since the frame story is not about a Harlem experience. Reverend Cobbs and his wife are financially comfortable, and Naima's money problems are more because of her unwanted pregnancy and family dysfunction than the kinds of sociological and cultural oppression Hughes bemoans in his most famous poem. That oppression is what informs his depiction of the nativity story, which sees it as an experience of the poor and downtrodden.
Do all narratives about the African-American experience need to be urban and angry? Of course not, but neither is "Harlem" the only poem that Hughes wrote. But it seems like it's the only one the film is confident we've read, and so it has to be central to the film, whether or not it actually fits the rest of the movie.
The nativity production, which in the film is produced by Langston's grandfather's church, is both the film's highlight and its reason for being. But the movie is short—ninety-three minutes—and it's lost all momentum by the time the story gets to the nativity. Langston is reluctant to go to church, but the gospel story rendition stirs his soul. It draws parallels between Mary and Joseph and contemporary African-American experiences.