The solemn choirs and verse of poet Langston Hughes’ "Black Nativity" get a gospel pop makeover in writer-director Kasi Lemmons’ somewhat corny but vibrant musical.
Less Biblical yet steeped in spiritual values, "Black Nativity" is a movie musical in the classical sense, in which people frequently sing their thoughts to each other, which pleasantly caught me off-guard. Lemmons’ approach is ambitious, even lip-synched, so it’s rare in live action movies without jukebox plots.
Featuring a pew-rattling cast of voices -- Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige and Nas among them -- the performances forge traditional carols with R&B drama and the swagger of rap. The soundtrack alone is worth checking out.
"Black Nativity" begins on Baltimore streets, with teenaged Langston -- named for the poet -- singing his frustration, a delinquent waiting to happen. Langston is played by fresh-faced discovery Jacob Latimore, with a voice and presence reminiscent of Usher. His single mom, Naima ( Hudson), is working overtime to dodge eviction, so she busses him off to spend Christmas in Harlem with grandparents he has never met.
They’re the stern Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his goodwill wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett), laying down rules of personal decorum that Langston can’t stand. Eventually he heads to Times Square streets, connecting with a convict (Tyrese Gibson) and a homeless couple (Grace Gibson, Luke James). They all figure into Black Nativity’s extraordinary third act, an eruption of dream fantasy, gospel verve and reformed family values.
Much of "Black Nativity" can be correctly dismissed as hokey and predictable but those qualities are eligible for a freer pass at this time of year. Peace on earth, goodwill to men, that sort of thing. The piety of this project is so genuine, its emotions so relatable and the music so darn good, that "Black Nativity" deserves to become a holiday perennial, at least in my house.
Rated PG-13 -- mature themes, brief profanity and gun menace.