9:15 AM EST, November 26, 2013
Writer-director Kasi Lemmons hasn't had a feature in theaters since 2007's "Talk to Me," a vibrant and unjustly little-seen biopic that starred Don Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor and told the story of D.C. deejay Petey Greene. That film was all about the power of words. Lemmons' new film, "Black Nativity," concerns good deeds and great songs, as it struggles with uneven success to find a cinematic home for the 1961 Langston Hughes "gospel-song-play" setting of the Nativity story.
Debuting off-Broadway, Hughes' project originally carried the title "Wasn't That a Mighty Day," and for decades "Black Nativity" has proven a mighty annual savior indeed for many an African-American theater company. Stage productions have varied widely in concept and setting; this is not a set-in-stone text, and the material encourages interpreters to find their own blend of spirituals and gospel standards, whichever way the story's told.
Lemmons adds a framing device that threatens to crush the picture itself. A young Baltimore teenager named Langston, played by Jacob Latimore, is sent by his cash-strapped, recently unemployed mother (Jennifer Hudson and her mighty pipes) to spend the holidays with the boy's estranged grandparents. Grandfather, played by Forest Whitaker, is a Baptist minister, married to Angela Bassett's Aretha. Their relationship with their daughter is a fraught and weighty affair, which must be righted, right around the time "Black Nativity" gets to the Christmas Eve church service, complete with Mary J. Blige as an angel.
Lemmons fashions a dream sequence during that lengthy climax, in which the dozing Langston imagines the Nativity to be taking place in modern-day Times Square. Tyrese Gibson, Vondie Curtis Hall and Nasir Jones round out the ensemble. Many original songs, "Coldest Town" and "Hush Child" among them, share the soundtrack with the traditional "Motherless Child," "Silent Night," "The First Noel" and "Can't Stop Praising His Name." It's a heady mixture, and luckily not all the rhymes are on the level of "Obi-Wan" with "Chosen One," as we hear in one song.
The result is easy to take and, in the end, a bit of a blur. The reconciliation between young Langston and his long-lost father is folded into the Nativity story itself. Whitaker's performance is the rock here. Even when the confrontations and evasions get a little ridiculous, he's neither wholly saint nor sinner, but something like a human being.
MPAA rating: PG (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation)
Running time: 1:33
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