What good is a shepherd
that goes to sleep? Suppose a wolf would come,
and steal your lambs away,
what you gonna tell
your master next day?
—Langston Hughes, Black Nativity
Who is the shepherd? Who are the sheep? Those were a couple of my questions about a new film adaptation of the 1961 Langston Hughes play Black Nativity after seeing it twice and then reading the short play for myself.
Is the reverend who drives his daughter away the bad shepherd? Or is it the man from whom he tries to protect her? Maybe it’s her, as she deprives her child of his heritage because she refuses to forgive. Or the mother, who enables her father’s dysfunction.
I didn’t think about these things until I compared the film with the play. I also didn’t realize how entirely different they are—the word adaptation may be a stretch. The film is metaphor for the play, I think. Or as its writer/director Kasi Lemmons said at a Los Angeles press junket, it is a “container” for Hughes’ work, which appears toward the story’s end as a Christmas pageant in the wayward pastor’s church.
“If you tell a lie your tongue might slip. If you tell the truth he might bust you in the lip…. You can’t preach one thing then up and do another, look out for yourself but try to con your brother. No-good shepherd! No good-shepherd!” wrote Hughes.