‘Black Nativity’ reminds us of holiday spirit

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(NNPA)–The holidays are upon us, and “Black Nativity,” Kasi Lemmons’ updated adaptation of “The Christmas Story,” reminds everyone that there is a reason for the season.

Open in theaters on Nov. 27, “Black Nativity,” a movie musical based on the play by Langston Hughes, stars Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson, who plays Naima, a struggling single mother who is about to be evicted from her home. Her son, Langston (Jacob Latimore), a “mama’s boy” who never knew his father, spends much of his time on the streets of Baltimore, and is teetering on the precipice of becoming a thug.

One day, Langston returns home to find his distraught mother clutching a notice stating that she must pay $5,000 before Christmas in order to avoid eviction. Needing time and space to work things out, Naima decides to send Langston to spend Christmas with her parents, from whom she has been estranged since before the boy was born. Langston is furious, but his mother insists that he boards a bus to Harlem for an extended visit with the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett).

Langston has a rude awakening immediately upon his arrival in Harlem, missing his connection with his grandparents, having a street punk snatch his backpack, and landing in jail after being falsely accused of lifting someone’s wallet. Upon his delayed arrival at his grandparents’ well-appointed home, a frustrated Langston is full of questions, and can’t imagine why they won’t help his mom with her financial situation.

“What went down with you and my mama? Why don’t you talk?” he asks his grandmother. “She ran away. She couldn’t forgive us,” she answers. His relationship with the stoic, self-righteous the Rev. Cobbs is considerably more contentious, but Langston is determined to find out the truth about his family, particularly the identity of his father.

With the libretto by Langston Hughes and a screenplay by Kasi Lemmons, “Black Nativity” begins slowly and rather quietly, but gains momentum as the story advances. While the compelling storyline of is familiar one, viewers with a disdain for people randomly bursting into song will have to exercise a bit of patience, even though much of it is traditional Christmas music.

Latimore, an engaging young actor with soulful eyes, delivers a poignant portrayal of Langston, a troubled young boy who’s pain and confusion cause him to make questionable decisions. Jennifer Hudson does an admirable job in this rather abbreviated role, in which her vocal prowess takes priority over her acting chops.

While Whitaker, an Academy Award winner, and Bassett, an Oscar nominee, give credible performances, neither was challenged by their assigned role, and Whitaker breaking into an emotional aria was both unconvincing and uncomfortable. In their respective roles however, Mary J. Blige, Tyrese Gibson, Luke James and hip-hop artist Nas were much more suited to the task.

The overall tone set by director Lemmons, best known for the emotionally charged “Eve’s Bayou” is a bit depressing, but in the end, largely due to a strong performance by Latimore, “Black Nativity” is an inspiring story of discovery, redemption and love. (Rated PG)

Contact Philadelphia Tribune Entertainment Reporter Kimberly C. Roberts at (215) 893-5753 or kroberts@phillytrib.com.

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