Sweet, seasonal and gorgeous, director Kasi Lemmons’ latest fills a void in African American cinema between inner-city action and broad situation comedy
Writer-director Kasi Lemmons certainly didn't invent black domestic melodrama, a genre that covers everything from the stalwart “A Raisin in the Sun” to Charles Burnett's pioneering, masterful “Killer of Sheep” and “To Sleep With Anger.”
But the woman behind “Eve’s Bayou” and “Talk to Me” puts an inventive modern spin on Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes’ 1961 play, one that’s still performed to music at Christmastime in churches all over the country. “Black Nativity” updates the 50-year-old stage piece with a stirring score that deftly blends the traditional with up-to-the-minute pop.
The music is great, the update necessary: By current standards, Hughes’ story is slight and a little undercooked, and the score gives it juice, if not quite enough to lift the plot out of prime-time inspirational.
Teenage R&B singer Jacob Latimore is suitably bamboozled as Langston (a clear alter ego for the playwright), a Baltimore boy who’s mystified and angered by the bad blood between his single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), and her family.
Langston is further thrown when a threatened foreclosure dispatches him to New York to stay with his grandparents (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), strict churchgoers who are equally unwilling to disclose the rift that drove their daughter to run away from home before Langston was born.
Roaming around Harlem and getting into (rather too mild) trouble, Langston meets some locals of ambiguous identity who help him approach the truth about his divided family. By 21st century standards, the secret is something of a damp squib as crisis fodder.
The big reveal is far eclipsed by the songs, which blend well-known spirituals with R&B and rap, giving “Black Nativity” an emotional lift that is at once wistful and joyful. Latimore is charming and handsome as a god, and Hudson’s soaring pipes triumph over her somewhat damp turn as his mother, her expression set to generic stricken.
Bassett grows more beautiful with each passing year, but she’s miscast in a gentle, placatory role that fails to do justice to the actress’s incandescent anger in so many of her other roles. So too is Whitaker, whose intense discipline and restraint don’t jibe with a role that calls for a mix of severity (which he can do in his sleep) and the kind of look-at-me charisma that can bring a church audience to its feet.
What carries “Black Nativity” through its triumphant finale is the black-and-gold opulence of its well-designed palette and the testifying brio of a fabulous gospel choir. While you’re there, keep a lookout for Mary J. Blige in white hair and humongous wing-span.
And, this being a Christmas tale, don't be surprised to hear from the prodigal Dad, whose remote inaccessibility exerted such a powerful pull on Hughes’ life and work. It's just not the holidays without a dollop of family drama.