I’ll admit that I was surprised when Jacob Latimore burst into song early into Kasi Lemmons’ “Black Nativity.” I went into the screening having only the vaguest knowledge of the cast and the director, and no one had mentioned that it was a musical.
But I came out a believer, roused every time Jennifer Hudson, Latimore or the others in the cast began singing. The music – a blend of gospel, Christmas carols, new songs by Raphael Saadiq and older songs such as Stevie Wonder’s “As” – is a character in the film. Like the best musicals, the songs reveal character and otherwise move the plot along.
Based loosely on a play by Langston Hughes, “Black Nativity” is a Christmas story about forgiveness and reconciliation, though it takes a while to get there. The story begins with a young woman, Naima (Hudson), and her son, Langston (Latimore). They live in Baltimore – but Naima has just received an eviction notice because she’s been out of work for a while.
While she tries to get her life together, she sends Langston to New York, to the care of the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker ) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett). They are Langston’s grandparents, but Langston has never met them. They threw Naima out of the house when she became pregnant because of the shame of a daughter having a child out of wedlock.
Langston is unhappy being away from his mother, wants to go back to Baltimore and is willing to steal to get the money to go help her. It all leads to Christmas eve at Rev. Cobbs’ church, an uplifting gospel celebration full of music and plot revelations. That includes a performance by Mary J. Blige, as a parishioner dressed in white who may or may not be an angel. You decide.
Lemmons easily blends the drama and the music, letting one lead the viewer into the other.
This review continues on my website.