Movie musical puts soulful new spin on familiar Christmas story
Starring Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Basset and Jacob Latimore
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
PG, 93 min.
If you’d like going to the movies to be a little more like going to church, then you’ll probably like going to see Black Nativity.
Based on a 1960s musical by acclaimed poet/novelist/playwright Langston Hughes, it’s a modern embellishment of the Nativity story as told through the converging lives of various characters coming together for the staging of a Christmas Eve pageant at a Harlem house of worship.
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons fleshes out Hughes’ stage play with a wider drama about a down-on-her-luck single Baltimore mom (Jennifer Hudson) who sends her teenage son (Jacob Latimore) to live with his grandparents in New York during the holidays while she works two jobs and tries to figure out how to keep her and her son off the streets.
For the displaced teen, Langston (named after the famous poet), it’s clearly not the most wonderful time of the year. Mere minutes after stepping off the bus in downtown Harlem, his backpack’s snatched, he has a run-in with the law, and he meets a toughened street hood (Tyrese Gibson) that we’re sure he’ll come across again. Welcome to the big, bad city, kid!
Langston also bristles at the rigid God-centric rules laid down by his strict pastor grandfather (Forest Whitaker), but warms somewhat to his beaming, gracious grandma (Angela Bassett).
The original Black Nativity stage production was a rich tapestry of traditional Christmas music and hymns, African-American rhythms, jazz and poetry. The movie version weaves in all of those elements, too, sprinkling throughout its dozen performances some contemporary hip-hop and rap for today’s ears.
Everybody sings, but it certainly helps that the cast includes a gut-busting tune-belter like Hudson, the Grammy and Oscar-winning American Idol finalist, and an appearance by Mary J. Blige, the electrifying “Queen of Hip-Hop Soul.”
It’s Whitaker, though, who truly surprises. The Oscar-winning actor doesn’t often get a chance to show off his old college chops as an opera tenor, but he does here when he cuts loose in the “Black Nativity” pageant, as the reverend leads the congregation in a soulful burst of preachin’ and praisin.’
This modest little feel-good movie probably won’t contend for any major awards (unlike Whitaker’s other movie this year, The Butler). It’s pretty basic in its production—although some of the handsome shots by veteran cinematographer Anastos Michos are top-notch—and its drama tends to get a bit syrupy as it’s trying to soar.
But its heart is in the right place. And it can put yours there, too, if this holiday season you’re seeking a wholesome story with a joyous, tune-filled message about forgiveness, second chances and the true, timeless meaning of Christmas.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine