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I think it was when Nas wandered on set for his second guest verse, toward the middle of Black Nativity, and summarily rhymed “the holy one above me” with “Obi-wan Kenobi” — during, I might add, a dream sequence in which a Christ is born to a homeless couple in modern-day Times Square while a white-afroed Mary J. Blige belts out a gospel-style carol around them — that I began to wonder whether this was a parody.
Regrettably, it was not.
Now, I realize that the nativity story isn’t cherished because of its adherence to historical realism, and that the musical is by nature embellished by forays into outright fantasy. You prepare yourself for a degree of inanity.
But the extraordinary liberties taken by Black Nativity are enough to make your local kindergarten’s Christmas pageant look like a paragon of verisimilitude. Geography collapses in thrall to the whims of contrivance. Chance encounters prove duly life-altering.
The film’s major twist, almost unbelievably, is revealed to us by way of a neck tattoo, exposed at climactic gunpoint — a moment so ludicrous I have to applaud the actors for not cracking up. By the time the credits rolled, my eyes were sore from all the rolling.
Such triteness is intended, I suppose, to encourage a broader appeal, to make this message of hope seem universal. But what is the point of contemporizing a traditional story if the world is rendered unrecognizably artificial?