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article imageReview: 'Black Nativity' is a ho ho holy mess Special

By Kristal Cooper     Nov 27, 2013 in Entertainment
American Thanksgiving traditionally marks the beginning of the holiday movie season, with studios starting to trot out their awards-bait films as well as their festive-themed offerings.
Black Nativity is based on the massively popular stage musical by poet/novelist/social activist Langston Hughes which pretty much consists of what its title describes: a gospel-scored re-telling of the classic Nativity story with an entirely African-American cast. The show has become an annual holiday tradition for many since it premiered in 1961 and given its popularity, it's kind of a no-brainer that it should be adapted for the big screen, where it would benefit from added Hollywood spectacle and an excellent surround sound system.
However, writer/director Kasi Lemmons (Eve's Bayou) seemingly bites off more than she can chew with her odd reworking of Hughes' play and the result is occasionally electrifying, but mostly uneven and less affecting than it should be.
Lemmons makes the choice to add a contemporary framing story starring Jacob Latimore as Langston, a teenage boy who lives in Baltimore with his adoring single mom Naima (Jennifer Hudson). When Naima finds out that the two are going to be evicted from their home just a few days before Christmas, she decides to send Langston to Harlem to stay with her estranged parents, Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker) and Aretha (Angela Bassett) Cobbs.
Having never met his grandparents, who turn out to be stricter than he's used to, Langston begins to fill his time searching for answers about why there's a rift in the family, who his real father is and how he can scrounge up the money his mother needs to keep their house. As Langston gets closer to getting himself into real trouble, his grandparents attempt to introduce him to spirituality through the Christmas Eve service that Reverend Cobb puts on at their local church, which only succeeds at bringing up Langston's deep-seated feelings of sadness, confusion and abandonment.
While it's admirable to try to make a film that's more accessible than a straight-up Nativity recreation, and while it feels as though care did go in to keeping the spirit of Hughes' work at the forefront (at the very least, hearing Hughes and his poetry described as genius several times during the film leaves no doubt about the respect Lemmons has for his work), it never feels as though young Langston's story properly meshes with the actual recreation of the source material. In fact, both the main story and the Nativity scenes feel much too thin because Lemmons attempts to pay equal attention to each — something that simply doesn't work within a 90-minute running time.
The saving grace is the cast who do an admirable job selling the film's musical sequences — although Whitaker seems uncomfortable when he's required to do a solo — as well as the melodrama, of which there's a surplus. The story is a straight-up soap opera complete with long-lost loves, family conniving and dramatic paternal reveals, all without a lot of depth or subtlety.
The Nativity sequence, which is obviously a very truncated rendition of what you would see in the stage play, feels shoehorned into the plot rather than having it unfold as organically as the film's other musical numbers. Fortunately, it's beautifully staged and the music is genuinely spectacular so even though what you're seeing is the cut-rate version, it's still stirring enough to cause a tear or two and very possibly inspire you to seek out a sure-to-be far superior stage production of Black Nativity in your city.
Black Nativity opens in theatres on November 27, 2013.
Follow Kristal Cooper on Twitter @mskristalcooper
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