Fueled by director Kasi Lemmons' gift for magical realism and Raphael Saadiq's resonant soul-gospel score, the R&B Christmas musical “Black Nativity” is all warmth. Despite its roots in the work of one of America's great poets, the film aims modestly to be a modern morality play with a simple message of forgiveness. And with the level of talent assembled in its cast, this is all that “Black Nativity” really needs to be.
Lemmons (“Eve's Bayou”) uses Langston Hughes' 1961 play “Black Nativity” as a jumping-off point for the story of Langston Cobbs (Jacob Latimore), a Baltimore teenager packed off to live with his estranged grandparents, the Rev. Cornell and Aretha Cobbs (Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett), after he and his mother (Jennifer Hudson) are evicted from their home. Upon arriving in New York, he discovers how little he knows about his origins. While life under the reverend's roof is strict but loving, Langston cannot trust his new surroundings, especially when he does not understand why his mother stopped talking to her parents.
The truth unfolds as he meets characters from the past, including a street tough (Tyrese Gibson) who takes an interest in Langston's well-being. This is all designed for an inevitable group hug, but surprises aren't exactly the point of “Black Nativity.” The film is more about emotion and aesthetics — there is so much rousing music that “Black Nativity” is nearly an operetta. It is a family film in almost every sense of the term.
This is Lemmons' first film since 2007's “Talk to Me,” and it's no small shock to see a writer-director who made her reputation with meaty material like “Eve's Bayou” indulging in comfort food. Fortunately, “Black Nativity” shows that Lemmons knows how to take a tried-and-true recipe and build an elaborate Christmas dinner around it.
— George Lang