By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Holiday movies don’t come any more Christmasy than Black Nativity, a heart-on-its-sleeve musical fable of family friction that radiates holiday spirit.
Jennifer Hudson play Naima, a struggling single mom in Baltimore facing eviction.
So, despite being bitterly estranged from her parents -– stern Rev. Cornell, played by Forest Whitaker, and his gracious wife Aretha, played by Angela Bassett -– Naima sends her moody 17-year-old son Langston (Jacob Lattimore) to Harlem to spend the holidays with grandparents he barely knows while his mother works and makes some much-needed money.
But New York City greets Langston harshly, and he’s robbed of his backpack and belongings mere minutes after he arrives at Times Square for the first time.
Then he’s mistakenly arrested after trying to do a good deed.
His wary grandfather rescues him, but lays down the demanding ground rules for his visit and his stay in their brownstone, including Langston’s mandatory attendance on Christmas Eve at the preacher’s church production of “Black Nativity.”
Langston mostly obliges, but his resentment at being sent away by his mother, coupled with his grandparents’ unwillingness or inability to tell him the source of their fifteen-year estrangement from their own daughter, makes him vulnerable when criminal temptations rear their heads, especially when delivered by Loot (Tyrese Gibson), whom Langston befriended during his brief jail stay, and representing potential financial help for his mother, whom he misses.
The whole cast sings, including Mary J. Blige, but it’s Oscar winner Hudson whose glorious voice raises the roof and stirs the emotions.
And the third act, depicting and including the church Christmas show, offers a moving shot at reunion, reconciliation, and redemption for this fractured family.
Writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, The Caveman’s Valentine, Talk to Me) takes her inspiration from Langston Hughes’ 1961 Off-Broadway musical, Black Nativity: A Gospel Song Play, which celebrated the nativity in music, drama, scripture, and verse.
Lemmons has updated and reimagined it, grafting portions of Hughes’ libretto onto her otherwise original story, and named her young protagonist for the poet-playwright.
But the contemporary adaptation falls short of the level of inspiration to which it aspires because of its dependence on implausibility and coincidence and a sometimes uneasy mix of realism and expressionism, which lessens its emotional power but certainly doesn’t obliterate it.
So we’ll celebrate 2½ stars out of 4 for Black Nativity, a sometimes overly stagy but admirably openhearted yuletide hybrid of music and drama that puts holiday spirit to inspirational use.