Defiantly simple, like earlier stage pageants based on Langston Hughes’ Christmas play, Kasi Lemmons’ “Black Nativity” gains power through its directness. Teenaged Langston (Jacob Latimore) is sent from Baltimore to Harlem by his single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), to stay with her estranged parents, Aretha (Angela Bassett) and the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker). They’re about to be evicted, she can’t find work, she needs $5,000 or they’re homeless. Plot complications—arriving by bus in Times Square, his backpack is stolen, he’s mistaken for a pickpocket, he meets a brusque but concerned older man (Tyrese Gibson) while in police holding—click along in melodramatic succession. (“Snatchin’ wallets is for punks.”) But the biggest surprise is how quickly, how assuredly, Lemmons incorporates song from the film’s first moments. It takes only a few shots before Jennifer Hudson is singing her woes, her worries, to her son, even as he is lost in his own thoughts, left to his own song. The music, the characters’ wants, threaten to break out into a full musical at any moment, even as Lemmons stays largely close to the ground, resisting the impulse to make the movie completely sung-through. Langston gets life lessons from his grandparents—a museum of African-American art and history, Reverend Cobbs says—but the openly Christian “Black Nativity” becomes more about forgiveness and regeneration in the long third act in his church. The music, from gentle pleading to roof-raising crowd shouts, elevates all, including the realization of what well-known story the entire film is built upon. (The groaningly obvious becomes the bluntly moving.) The diverse, searching score comes via executive music producer Raphael Saadiq; the intimate, tellingly detailed production design is by Kristi Zea (“Goodfellas”). (One of the film’s odder moments takes place in the church, a quick shot off of the audience side of the stage where we get a cameo of co-producer Bill Horberg, co-owner of Chicago’s 1970s Sandburg Theater-turned-producer (“Cold Mountain,” “Milk”). 92m. (Ray Pride)
“Black Nativity” is now playing.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming; previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/rayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)