Susan Granger's review of 'Black Nativity'
In a bold, contemporary adaptation of Langston Hughes' 1961 gospel music oratorio, this holiday musical/melodrama follows Langston (R&B pop star Jacob Latimore), a wary, street-wise teen from inner-city Baltimore, who has been raised by his embittered single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson).
Faced with eviction, recently laid-off Naima puts Langston on a bus to New York City so that he can celebrate the holidays with the grandparents he's never met: proud, eloquent Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his supportive wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett). Led into temptations in Harlem, rebellious, conflicted Langston connects with Loot (Tyrese Gibson), a local hustler whom he meets in jail, and embarks on a revelatory, redemptive journey during which, along with new friends and a little divine intervention, he discovers the true meaning of family, forgiveness and reconciliation.
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou," Talk to Me") was working on this project as she was grieving over the death of her beloved sister, so she says the theme about questioning faith was particularly apt for her. Drawing from the black experience with quotations from Hughes' poetry, the story recasts the classic Nativity tale with black performers who sing traditional hymns and folk spirituals like "Go Tell It On the Mountain," along with original songs like Hudson's "Test of Faith." In a dream sequence set in Times Square, Lemmons envisions Mary and Joseph as a homeless, pregnant couple (Grace Gibson, Luke James) singing "Silent Night." Nasir Jones (a.k.a. rapper Nas) plays the street prophet Isiah, Vondie Curtis-Hall is a streetwise pawnbroker who says he knew Langston's dad, and Mary J. Blige is an Angelic parishioner at Cobbs' Holy Resurrection Baptist Church. This African-American interpretation is punctuated by hip-hop riffs, composed by Raphael Saadiq, who wrote the score with Laura Karpman, choreographed by Otis Sallid, costumed by Gersha Phillips, and photographed by Anastos Michos.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, "Black Nativity" is an inspirational, sincerely spiritual 6, turning the movie theater into
a church and preaching
to the choir.