A child is born, a family is healed, and a sermon on forgiveness is delivered with sledgehammer subtlety in “Black Nativity,” a bold but clumsy attempt to bring Langston Hughes’ popular musical to life onscreen. You have to admire the earnest, nakedly emotional approach taken by writer-director Kasi Lemmons as she seeks a free-form cinematic equivalent of Hughes’ stage show-cum-worship service — a rousing fusion of pageantry, gospel music and 19th-century folk spirituals that has been a holiday perennial since its first Off Broadway production in 1961. But the film miscalculates by planting this African-American interpretation of the nativity story at the center of an angsty troubled-teen melodrama that, from mean-streets prologue to Christmas Eve climax, simply fails to inspire belief.
Compared with the season’s more attention-grabbing yuletide offerings aimed at black audiences, from Universal’s current hit “The Best Man Holiday” to Lionsgate’s upcoming “A Madea Christmas,” this Fox Searchlight release will likely land with softer impact. Still, its faith-based thrust and highly marketable musical elements should connect with viewers inclined to welcome the momentary transformation of their movie theater into a church — specifically, a black Baptist church energetically presided over by the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), one of the principal characters in this fractious family drama.
Lemmons signals her stylistic intentions early on by letting her characters give full-blown musical expression to their oft-bruised hopes and dreams, enabled by a slate of songs produced by Raphael Saadiq (who also composed the score with Laura Karpman). It’s days before Christmas when moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore), named after the Harlem Renaissance writer-activist himself, learns that he and his recently laid-off mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), are about to be evicted. Although Naima has been estranged from her parents for years, her circumstances are desperate enough that she sends Langston to New York to spend the holidays with the grandparents he’s never met, Cornell and Aretha (Angela Bassett).
Arriving at his grandparents’ Harlem brownstone, Langston gets off on the wrong foot with Cornell, a strict moralist who sees plenty of room for character improvement in his sullen, defiant grandson. He has a point: Langston, desperate to improve his and his mom’s situation, is not above the occasional act of petty theft (or worse). The boy gets along better with Aretha, who offers him a warm welcome while gently batting away his tough questions about the conflict that drove their family apart, as well as the identity of his absentee father. Rest assured that all these painful mysteries will be cleared up by the grand finale, in a none-too-convincing swirl of dramatic pixie dust.
Before then, Lemmons (helming her first feature since 2006’s underrated Petey Greene biopic “Talk to Me”) leads her story down various historical avenues of black experience, whether quoting from Hughes’ poetry or illuminating Cornell’s experience as a young boy participating in the civil rights movement. The director also introduces a contemporary version of Mary and Joseph in the form of a homeless, pregnant couple (Grace Gibson, Luke James) whose lovely rendition of “Silent Night” leads into a plaintive number about life on the streets; the sequence is peppered with hip-hop riffs, choreographed by Otis Sallid and fluidly lensed by Anastos Michos, whose long, flowing takes achieve the sort of heightened reality that has happily not vanished entirely from the bigscreen tuner tradition.
These musical underpinnings come into full flower with a production of Hughes’ “Black Nativity” that serves as the film’s magical-realist centerpiece, presented as a lively Christmas Eve church service: Cornell preaches and leads the congregation, Aretha takes her place in the choir, and Langston dozes off in the front pew. The dream sequence that follows merges old-time religion with modern-day reality, re-staging the birth of Jesus in all its incongruous splendor; at one point, a llama wanders through the chaos of Manhattan, while Bethlehem’s star glimmers somewhere overhead. And just as God initiated His outreach to mankind some 2,000 years ago, so this night in New York becomes one of grand reconciliation, inspiring a ludicrous pileup of confrontations and coincidences that Langston describes as his “Christmas miracle.” He doesn’t sound especially convinced.
Lemmons advances this story with straight-faced conviction, orchestrating narrative and spectacle with a grandiosity that proves easier to admire from a distance than it is to engage with onscreen. Mileage will vary from viewer to viewer, but the nativity sequence, although a vibrant showcase for Gersha Phillips’ vibrant costume designs (particularly the wings donned by Mary J. Blige’s Angel), never becomes truly transporting, serving mainly as an agreeable, toe-tapping distraction from Langston’s lumbering journey.
It doesn’t help that R&B/pop star Latimore, though given a few opportunities to show off his musical talents, is a bit of a sympathy vacuum in the central role; he doesn’t really draw the audience into Langston’s desire to know his family, much less his impulsive decision to buy a gun from a local tough (a fine Tyrese Gibson). The more seasoned actors do fine work: Whitaker slips easily into the robe of a pastor whose passion is matched by his eloquence and rectitude, while Bassett (whom Whitaker directed in “Waiting to Exhale”) is welcome as always in a conventionally supportive role. Although Naima largely vanishes from the story early on, Hudson reappears in musical interludes throughout, her powerhouse vocals playing a sort of guardian-diva role in this increasingly tangled story.