First of all, let's make one thing clear: this film must not be confused with Black Christmas. So before you pop the corn and gather the family around for a heartwarming reimagining of the Christmas story as the birth of Jesus in Harlem, be sure you have the correct film! You probably do not want to show Grandma and little Billy and Susie either Bob Clark's Black Christmas or the remake, even though Clark was the director of A Christmas Story. Both BCs are slasher films about escaped maniacs dressed as a homicidal Santa.
More important for this site, as far as I know neither version of Black Christmas features a church. If I ever see either film and find out differently, I'll let you know.
Where was I? Oh, right, Black Nativity. The 2013 film is based on Langton Hughes' 1961 musical. Hughes was a poet, novelist, activist, and, of course, a playwright. There is a character in the film who's named Langston.
Langston is a fifteen year old boy living with his single mother (Jennifer Hudson) in Baltimore. When they receive an eviction notice just before Christmas, Langston is sent to New York City to stay with the grandparents he's never met.
Arriving in the city, Langston is mistaken for a thief and put in jail. His grandfather, a minister, comes to bail him out, though he assumes the charges are true. The Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) brings his grandson home with judgment all over his face. Fortunately, Langston's grandmother (Angela Bassett) greets the boy with warmth and love.
When the boy sits down for an eagerly awaited dinner, the Reverend's prayer is interminably long. When he's finished praying, he asks about Langston's mother and visibly flinches when told she (his daughter!) has been tending bar. Langston can only take so much and rushes away from the table to his room upstairs.
Rev. Cobbs shows Langston a watch he received from Martin Luther King. He tells Langston the watch will be his someday, when the Reverend passes away. Langston decides to take it a little early and brings it to a pawnbroker, who recognizes it as the cherished possession of the Rev. Cobbs. The pawnbroker tells the kid to return it, or he'll call the cops. Apparently everyone in Harlem, including the police, knows the Reverend Cobbs and respects him.
Langston wants to get away from his grandparents' home, but he also wants to get money for his mother, so he considers robbing the pawn store. Everything comes to a head on Christmas Eve.
The Reverend tells his grandson to come to the church service, adding, "Choose for yourself today what God you will serve, but as for me and my house we will serve the Lord."
At the service we see the Reverend in a grand robe surrounded by a full choir and glorious decorations. There is a reenactment of the nativity story. Langston falls asleep and dreams of Mary and Joseph coming to Harlem for the birth of their Child. Langston wakes up and leaves the service intending to rob the pawn shop. But instead, there is an unexpected intervention and discovery.
Back at the church, the Reverend is proclaiming that in Jesus, God entered into the world to make things right, to grant forgiveness. And that night, the Reverend, too, acknowledges his mistakes and his need for forgiveness. The Gospel is proclaimed, and the congregation sees the Good News heal the life of the Reverend and his grandson.
I do have one gripe about the Reverend Cobbs' church. On Christmas Eve, we see fundraising taking place to buy the church a new roof. Fundraising is sometimes necessary, but when guests and first time visitors come on Christmas Eve, they shouldn't be hit up for money. They need to receive before they can give.
Still, it seems like a good Movie Church, and the Reverend is a good man. I'm giving them Three Steeples.
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