‘Black Nativity’ sort of adapts the Langston Hughes Christmas classic

Forest Whitaker tries to advice his grandson (Jacob Latimore) in "Black Nativity." Credit: Fox Searchlight
Forest Whitaker tries to advice his grandson (Jacob Latimore) in “Black Nativity.”
Credit: Fox Searchlight

‘Black Nativity’
Director: Kasi Lemmons
Stars: Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Not a lot of Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity” winds up in “Black Nativity,” and that’s fine. The source was itself a reworking of existing material — the birth of Jesus — for a gospel setting. The film version goes much further: It’s present day, but the Christ business is more a backdrop. It’s not even baby Jesus who’s honored. It’s Hughes. The lead character, played by teen R&B singer Jacob Latimore, is actually named Langston, and he’s constantly, by everyone, being told about the importance of Hughes’ work.

This Langston is a Baltimore youth whose mom (Jennifer Hudson) can no longer provide for him. For at least Christmas, she decides to pack him off to her long-estranged parents: the Stern Reverend Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), who presides over a Harlem church, and his much warmer wife (Angela Bassett). Langston is both innocent and desperate, and he can’t decide whether to listen to his grandfather’s gnomic utterances about black history or turn to, shall we say, more direct ways of fixing his mother’s financial problems. And it’s also a part-time musical.

This is an unwieldly film, both ambitious and too modest, bold and sloppy. The musical aspects aren’t always smoothly integrated, and not just because Whitaker really, really doesn’t look like he wants to sing, as he’s forced to do briefly and weakly.

But sincerity wins out in the end. Writer/director Kasi Lemmons — whose “Eve’s Bayou” wound up at the top of Roger Ebert’s 1997 Top Ten list — wants to use Hughes to reflect on the modern day black experience, and do without the need to make it palatable for white audiences. She wants to talk about class not overall but amongst the black community, where some struggle on the streets while others live in lavish, ornate brownstones.

That the token homeless couple (Grace Gibson and Luka James) are pretty — very distractingly, amusingly pretty — is atoned for by the number they do. Not all the songs are memorable, but the acting, by the non-singers in the cast, are excellent. Whitaker works in notes of self-doubt and melancholy into what could have been a one-note authority figure. And Tyrese Gibson and Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall, get a couple commanding scenes a piece.

This is a movie about the importance of family and faith; it even has T.D. Jakes as a producer. But even with a church-set climax, it doesn’t necessarily proselytize, and even questions whether faith and family are always reliable. It’s not a smooth production, but the world is better for it existing.


News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Florida man charged with murdering son to play…

A Florida man annoyed that his 16-month-old crying son was preventing him from playing video games suffocated the toddler, police said on Friday.

International

Powerful 7.2 magnitude earthquake rattles Mexico

A powerful earthquake struck Mexico Friday, shaking buildings and sending people running into the street, although there were no reports of major damage.

News

OMG! Exercise can make skin (and butt) look…

A moderate exercise regime can turn back time and actually reverse the skin's aging process, according to new research. The study showed that a minimum…

International

Jews in eastern Ukraine ordered to register, Kerry…

Secretary of State John Kerry condemned reports that Jews in eastern Ukraine had been ordered to register with the authorities "or suffer the consequences."

Entertainment

Whoopi Goldberg makes her debut as marijuana columnist

"It helps my head stop hurting, and with glaucoma your eyes ache, and she takes the ache out. It's wonderful," she said.

The Word

Kate Middleton made fun of Prince William's bald…

Kate Middleton and Prince William are in Sydney, Australia, right now, and it sounds like that brash Aussie sense of humor might be rubbing off.

The Word

Is Tom Cruise dating Laura Prepon?

"Mission: Impossible" star Cruise is said to be dating Laura Prepon, star of "Orange is the New Black."

Television

'Scandal' recap: Season 3, Episode 18, 'The Price…

Sally is Jesus, Olivia caused global warming, and Mellie's still drunk. Let's recap the Scandal finale. A church full of Washington insiders is about to…

NBA

Deron Williams leads Nets over Raptors in Game…

The Nets traveled to a raucous Air Canada Centre but came out with an important Game 1 victory over the Raptors.

NBA

Carmelo Anthony agonizing over Knicks future as season…

There’s still the cloud hanging over the franchise’s head as to the pending free-agent status of All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony.

NFL

Jets host players with eye toward NFL Draft

The Jets hosted a number of NFL Draft hopefuls for workouts on Thursday, with an eye toward some under-the-radar players.

NFL

Chris Johnson: I wanted to go to 'a…

Now that Chris Johnson is a Jet, the team has to figure out if one of the most explosive players in the NFL over the last half decade has anything…

Tech

VIDEO: 'Vein-scanning' may become the future of paying

Designed to make transactions quicker and easier, the technology works by scanning the unique vein patterns in each person's palm.

Tech

#FollowFriday: 10 of the smartest Twitter accounts

Spending lots of time on Twitter? You might as well learn something. Here are some of the smartest accounts to follow.

Style

Light-up nail art syncs with phone

This Japanese technology syncs light-up nail art with your phone.

Wellbeing

Why is dance cardio taking off in NYC?

Instructors at some of the city's hottest classes explain why.