Somebody please give Kasi Lemmons all the money and creative freedom she wants to make as many movies as she wants starting right now. I say this because she's a filmmaker who understands the power of strangeness and I want to see her unleash it full-force on a grand scale. Her first feature, 1997's Eve's Bayou, delved into the chaos of family secrets, witchcraft and voodoo. After that she dove head first into the deeply weird, with the underappreciated Caveman's Valentine, a murder mystery featuring a dreadlocked Samuel Jackson as a mentally ill pianist living in a cave. Now she's recreating the nativity with camels walking around Harlem as Nas (playing a mystical bus-prophet, naturally) stands nearby, rapping, while Tyrese recites poetry at gunpoint in a pawn shop. Oh, and Mary J. Blige in a huge white wig because she may or may not be an actual angel. These are all very good things.
There's a story in here, of course, a contemporary musical adaptation of Langston Hughes's play, Black Nativity, with original songs by Tony! Toni! Tone!'s Raphael Saadiq. Jennifer Hudson plays a single mother, struggling to save her home from foreclosure, only to lose it days before Christmas. She sends her son (Jacob Latimore) to live with her estranged minister father (Forest Whitaker) and sighing, nervous mother (Angela Bassett) as they prepare to mount their church's annual Nativity pageant. Mixed up in all this is an O. Henry-esque pocket watch, crime, pregnant street-teens, a gospel choir, choreographed dream sequences and that awesome camel.
It's a big mess, but it's a daring one. A strain of solidly conservative Christianity runs through much of current African-American film and this one, with its roots in the Nativity story and church setting, continues the sometimes confusing, contradictory walk down that path. But Lemmons isn't authoritarian. Her Christians fail at Christianity, her didacts fracture under the weight of their own rigidity, her moral is grace and forgiveness instead of correction. And she keeps the weirdness coming. Songs appear out of nowhere and leave as quickly. Hudson's voice aches and cries indignantly every time she's on screen, reminding you why she didn't leave movies after Dreamgirls. Forest Whitaker sings more of those fleeting songs than Mary J. Blige (normally not something for the plus column, but the audacity of that move is still on my mind). Dream sequences allow characters to materialize, interact and then disappear as quickly as the songs. Conversations start and refuse to resolve. Gibson, choosing this moment to begin his acting career after goofing off through every single Fast and Furious film, brings shocking, surprise gravity to his Langston Hughes poetry recital. And Nas… wait, where'd Nas go?
Lemmons has given us a Christmas present that's difficult to wrap. It's ambitious, frustrating, funny and sometimes seemingly skeptical of the supernatural Nativity story at its core. It ends with a kind of free-form singing jam that plays out through the credits and I expected a post-crawl shot of Linus Van Pelt emerging from stage left to offer, "And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." It wouldn't have felt out of place at all.