There’s something so decidedly old-fashioned about Black Nativity, an updating of the Christmas-themed musical written by poet Langston Hughes and first performed in 1961, that it feels like a small marvel to be watching it in 2013. It doesn’t matter that not all of the songs are memorable or that the performances are of varying success, the warm-hearted Black Nativity feels tailor-made to fit with the good tidings of the season.
Beginning in contemporary Baltimore, the film focuses on the struggles of a single mother (Jennifer Hudson) and her teenage son, Langston (Jacob Latimore), named after the noted writer. After getting an eviction notice, mom ships Langston off to her parents in Harlem until she can get her life together.
The trouble is that she’s not on good terms with her father (a by-the-book preacher named Rev. Cobb played by Forest Whitaker) or mother (Angela Bassett), largely because of her being involved with Jacob’s dad and having a child out of wedlock. At first, Langston hates his new life — the Cobbs don’t tolerate any nonsense — and he considers turning to street crime to raise the money to get back to Maryland and help his mother.
Of course, this being a Christmas movie, his best-laid plans are derailed by good intentions. He realizes his grandparents do have his best interest at heart, and what better holiday present would there be than to have the two sides of his family reunited? Along the way he befriends a homeless couple, pregnant Maria (Grace Gibson) and her partner Jo Jo (Luke James), who have no place to have their baby.
Yes, it’s all heavy-handed and it pulls on the heart strings so hard they might just break. Along the way, everyone is prone to bursting into song, or rap, as in the case of hip-hop luminary Nas. It’s here where Hudson, still not completely comfortable as an actress, outshines everybody else onscreen. But it’s Whitaker who summons up the most layered, nuanced performance, playing a man whose no-nonsense facade hides a whirlpool of guilt about his relationship with his daughter.
Director/writer Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou, Talk to Me) sets up some clever visuals — Times Square becomes Judea West with billboards proclaiming “Visit Gomorrah” — though the songs from Laura Karpman and Raphael Saddiq don’t always do them justice. In fact, the best song is a gospel take on Stevie Wonder’s I’ll Be Lovin’ You Always.
Despite that and the fact that Black Nativity may be as predictable as pumpkin pie after turkey and stuffing, it still manages to be satisfying. And that’s something to be thankful for.