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,
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.
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 theatersEndText