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" ...