Adapted from a play by Langston Hughes, "Black Nativity" channels biblical themes into a modern inner-city context. The film also happens to be a musical, integrating a variety of soul and hip-hop numbers into its narrative from Laura Karpman and R&B veteran Raphael Saadiq.
Its story is focused on a black teen from Baltimore (played by Jacob Latimore) who is sent to stay with his grandparents in Harlem for the holidays while his mother (Jennifer Hudson) stays behind to deal with an eviction notice. This wouldn't be such a conflict if the teen (named Langston by his mother after the famous poet/playwright) actually had a relationship with his grandparents. But thanks to past events that are about to come to light, Langston's grandparents are little more than strangers.
It doesn't help that Langston winds up in jail on a theft charge soon after arriving in New York. It is here he meets his grandfather, the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), a celebrated local preacher who lives in a comfortable home in Harlem with his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett), Langston's grandmother. They take Langston to his new home, where he immediately bristles at the strict discipline of his environment. The reverend tries to instill some dignity in his grandson, showing him the inscribed pocket watch he received as a gift from Martin Luther King Jr., but Langston's reaction is to steal the watch and attempt to pawn it.
From here, "Black Nativity" uses Langston as a focal point for a variety of subplots and characters. The mysterious man outside the pawn shop (played by Tyrese Gibson) turns up too often in Langston's life to be coincidence. There's the expecting couple that sings for money outside the reverend's house, and an annual Christmas pageant the reverend is preparing to perform for his local flock. Through all of this, Langston begins to peel back the layers of mystery to explain what happened to drive his mother away so many years ago.
"Black Nativity" juggles a variety of contemporary social issues, and at times it's hard to tell who the film is pointing its fingers at. Langston struggles constantly with the temptation to give in to the code of street life. The Rev. Cobbs strains to be a moral compass for his church, yet struggles to apply charity to those closest to him. It seems everyone is to blame to some degree. But even though "Black Nativity" feels a little cluttered early on, a strong third act leaves the audience with the clarity of a more satisfying high note (and I mean that literally; a cover of the Stevie Wonder classic "As" plays over the closing credits).
The music is a centerpiece here, though good production value doesn't always equal an emotional wallop (there is also some periodic dissonance between the studio recording and the on-screen performance). Hudson, as expected, is featured in several numbers, but her co-stars are equally involved, with Whitaker, Bassett and Latimore contributing often, along with peripheral guests like Mary J. Blige and Nas. Genre fans will enjoy the music, but the message is what will resonate with most audiences.
"Black Nativity" is rated PG for some adult themes and mild profanity.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. You can see more of his work at woundedmosquito.com.