This movie felt like an excuse to get Jennifer Hudson on screen singing
again. She can make music videos. She didn't need to do this film. I
think I would have wholly preferred if Hudson had just done a Christmas
album, produced by Raphael Saadiq who does the soundtrack here and
featuring guest stars Mary J. Blige, Tyrese Gibson, Nasir Jones and
Jacob Latimore on various tracks. This movie takes what could have been a
Christmas album, fragments, if not shatters it and forces a
non-cinematic and overly melodramatic narrative into it, as a kind of
connective tissue that's clunky and awkward to watch.
Jennifer Hudson stars as Naima, a single mother in Baltimore with her 15-year-old son Langston, played by Jacob Latimore. Naima gets an eviction notice the week before Christmas, if not a few days prior. Her reaction is to send Langston to stay with her parents in Harlem for the holidays. A poor single mother sending her son away to live a better life is a trope that's hackneyed. We've seen it done to better effect in Boyz N the Hood (1991) and to more shocking effect in Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer (2012).
As I think about it, this musical shares a lot in common with Red Hook Summer. Both involve a teenage African-American falling under the auspices of a religious man. Here, that religious man is Reverend Cornell Cobbs, played by Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker. Cobbs is a lot more dignified and certainly more wealthy than the religious man in Red Hook Summer. Yet, the climax for both is the revelation of a misdeed in their pasts. Cobbs' misdeed isn't as egregious as the one in Red Hook Summer, but it's the kind of revelation that draws gasps from an audience who hears it.
Writer-director Kasi Lemmons stages the revelation as if her actors are performing it in the Globe Theatre and in the most melodramatic manner possible. All of the tension and conflict land like thuds, and so much is made of the revelation as to make any one watching what it turns out to be wonder what the big deal is. The revelation is hoarded like some devastating secret that Lemmons needlessly draws out and then settles in less than two seconds. It was almost pointless.
With the exception of Whitaker and Angela Bassett who plays his wife, as well as Tyrese Gibson who plays Tyson, a pawn shop employee and local criminal, the rest simply aren't giving good acting performances, particularly Latimore who in real-life is a recording artist but who spends the majority of this movie just standing and posing. I hardly get any range of emotion from him. The same for Hudson who is only expressive when she is belting out lyrics and even then, she doesn't give us any more than she did in Dreamgirls (2006).
She's absent for most of the movie any how. Yet, Lemmons and Saadiq sneak her vocals into every song, as if they don't trust the others to be able to carry a tune without her. Lemmons includes a homeless couple out of nowhere and don't do much with them, aside from be in Langston's dream sequence as Jesus' parents. Yet, there is no story for them.
This is Kasi Lemmons' fourth feature as director and is by far her worst. Check out instead Lemmons' other three: Eve's Bayou (1997), The Caveman's Valentine (2001) and Talk to Me (2007).
One Star out of Five.
Rated PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 33 mins.