A Christmas story about a mother long estranged from her parents, about her son who doesn't even know his grandma and grandpa, about hard times and near crimes, Black Nativity offers a whopping serving of Yuletide emotion. And it's a musical - with plenty of wailing and rapping on the side.
Inspired by Langston Hughes' play of the same name, filmmaker Kasi Lemmons centers her tale on a moody teen, Langston (R&B star Jacob Latimore), who lives with his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), in Baltimore. Their relationship is close, they need each other. But Naima is in crisis: facing foreclosure, she sends her son to New York, to spend the holidays with his grandparents. On the bus, Langston breaks into "Motherless Child" - soon half the passengers are singing along.
The Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett), live in a handsome Harlem brownstone. They are pillars of the community. And when Langston finally finds his way there - after a night in jail (a Times Square rendezvous gone really, really bad) - he and the stern, imposing pastor don't exactly hit it off. Langston may be unaccustomed to saying grace before a meal; he's doubly unaccustomed to hearing the prayer-giver beseech God to deliver a belt to hold Langston's "loose pants up."
Lemmons, director of the very fine Eve's Bayou and the Ralph "Petey" Greene bio Talk to Me (starring Don Cheadle and 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor), is fearless in her approach: rousing musical numbers, archetypal good guys and bad guys, and a modern-day Joseph and Mary, a homeless couple (Luke James, Grace Gibson) expecting a child. But the archetypes become stereotypes as the plotline (a stolen pocket watch, a mysterious pawnshop employee) unfolds.
Aimed squarely at African American audiences, Black Nativity builds to a big Christmas Eve climax: the setting is the pastor's church, where the traditional sermon becomes something else: a confrontation, a confession. And there's some powerful warbling to do before forgiveness is meted out.
Black Nativity *1/2
Directed by Kasi Lemmons. With Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Jacob Latimore. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters