An urban Christmas with an R&B/rap soundtrack provides the energizing backdrop for a modern tale of rejection, redemption and forgiveness in Kasi Lemmons’ dramatic holiday musical, “Black Nativity,” opening today.
The film is inspired by the Langston Hughes gospel song-play of the same name, an African-American version of the Christmas story that has been adopted and adapted for decades as the times have changed.
Lemmons’ film, however, is not about Mary and Joseph and a newborn child. No wise men will be showing up with gifts for 15-year-old Langston (Jacob Latimore) and his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), when they are evicted from their Baltimore apartment. Laid off from her job and working two others to make ends meet, Naima sends her son to her parents in New York City for the holidays, even though he has never met them and she has not spoken to them in years.
The visit gets off to a bad start, as Langston is robbed of his belongings and wrongfully accused of stealing a wallet within minutes of stepping off the bus.
“Welcome to New York, young man. Apparently I’m your grandfather,” is how the respected Rev. Cobb (Forest Whitaker) soberly greets Langston as he collects him from his jail cell and takes him to a whole new world.
Harlem, where the Reverend and his gracious wife (Angela Bassett) make their home in a gorgeous brownstone, is light years away from everything Langston knew growing up. The film follows him as he struggles to reconcile his grandparents’ success with his mother’s struggles, and to figure out who he really is and what he wants to be.
He is a young man on the brink, ready to be pushed over or pulled back.
Lemmons ties her scenes to one another with touches of artistry, letting small moments speak volumes, and not overexplaining herself. We know Hudson’s character is suffering; we can hear it as she sings her dream that her son will fly where she has failed. But we hear no excuses for her alienation. She knows she has “messed up.”
Langston, however, does not know that. He loves his mother, never knew his father, and starts demanding answers from his grandparents, only to get cryptic responses. They made mistakes. They are broken-hearted. His mother won’t forgive them. What does it mean?
All he knows is that something – something big – happened with his family. Soon, he begins to fear that what happened was him, and cries out in song “Did my very birth destroy my whole family?”
The movie gains momentum as Langston’s quest for the truth collides with Christmas and takes an impressionistic turn in a dreamy nativity sequence that mixes music, media and cinematic metaphors.
As for the ending, you know going in that it is a Christmas movie. This time, the gift comes when young Langston filters the message of the manger through his own anger and pain and demands the Christmas miracle that his family has denied him for so long.
The only question left is, who will give it to him?
Starring: Forest Whitaker, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, Jacob Latimore
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Running time: 95 minutes
Rating: PG for thematic material and language.
The Lowdown: When a single mother sends her teenage son to live with her estranged parents, music and a Christmas miracle occur. Based on the play by Langston Hughes.