Langston Hughes’s classic holiday musical “Black Nativity” isn’t re-created as much as invoked in Kasi Lemmons’s cinematic version of the tale, here “opened up” into a 21st-century story of family, faith and redemption.
As the film opens, the teenage protagonist — aptly named Langston — is running amok on the hard streets of Baltimore, kicking over Santa Claus statues and defacing the cheerful Christmas-themed graffiti that decorates grim city walls. Facing eviction from her apartment, Langston’s mom, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), sends him to the New York home of her parents, a preacher and his wife from whom she’s been estranged since her son’s birth.
At first blush, “Black Nativity” looks like it will boldly enmesh gritty urban realism and the lush, theatrical values of classic Hollywood pageants, with an imaginative production number set to a song called “Coldest Town” and, following that, a potentially soaring ensemble version of “Motherless Child” set on a Greyhound Bus.
Unfortunately, that set piece doesn’t hit its promised heights, and for much of its running time, “Black Nativity” succumbs to starchy pacing, structural awkwardness and original songs (written by Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman) that don’t hold a candle to the traditional spirituals. Despite those early glimmers of ambition, during the second half of “Black Nativity” Lemmons seems far more preoccupied with guiding her many plotlines and characters into a cathartic convergence, which winds up being less convincing than schematic and schmaltzy.
That said, sensory pleasures abound in “Black Nativity,” which is grounded by Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett’s performances as Langston’s strict, God-fearing grandparents. It’s worth the price of admission to live for just a vicarious hour or two in the couple’s gorgeous Harlem brownstone, with its glowing woodwork, vibrant textiles and artwork by the likes of Romare Bearden, Faith Ringgold and Qunnie Pettway.
In an attention-grabbing breakout lead performance, 16-year-old Jacob Latimore does an impressive job of carrying “Black Nativity,” even if the character he plays is often surly and unresponsive. By the time the film reaches its biblically inspired dreamscape of a climax, “Black Nativity” qualifies as equal parts surreal and stirring. That fantasy sequence — combining a present-day church service, imagined baby-in-a-manger scenario and only-in-the-movies third act reveal — isn’t executed particularly smoothly, and the giant angel wings donned by cameo player Mary J. Blige are too literal by more than a feather.
Still, as with the rest of “Black Nativity,” even that ungainly moment soars, thanks largely to Latimore’s musical chops and understated confidence and the arrival of Hudson. Not surprisingly, she electrifies the screen whenever she appears, in the final sequence lending her prodigious pipes to shattering versions of the gospel standards “Fix Me Jesus” and “Be Grateful.”
These are just the kind of chills that provide the perfect kickoff to a warm holiday season.
PG. At area theaters. Contains thematic material, profanity and a menacing situation. 95 minutes.