Nov. 27--Musical drama. Starring Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson and Jacob Latimore. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. (PG. 93 minutes.)
"Black Nativity" deepens into a rich experience once the scene shifts to the inside of a church, but it's a long time getting there. Written by director Kasi Lemmons, the film is an adaptation of the Langston Hughes libretto of the same name, which has achieved classic status since its debut in 1961.
Hughes' work celebrates both the African American experience and the birth of Christ through a retelling of the nativity story, interspersed with Christmas carols and gospel songs. It has become a staple of the holiday season and, in its various incarnations, it has been revived every year in theaters and in churches.
Lemmons' innovation is to introduce a family drama and meld it to the Hughes nativity story, an inspired idea that produces mixed results. At the center of the film is a teenager named Langston, named after Hughes and played by Jacob Latimore. When his single mom (Jennifer Hudson) goes broke and faces eviction, she has no choice but to send the boy to live with her estranged parents, a straitlaced Harlem preacher (Forest Whitaker) and his wife (Angela Bassett). But Langston pines for his mother and schemes for a way to rescue her from debt.
Whitaker and Bassett are superb, with performances that are full of feeling and a sense of past history. Underneath their every word and action is an unspoken regret. But Lemmons' strategy of making the entire film, not only the church portion, into a straight musical is undermined by the weakness of the original songs and also by Hudson. She has a great voice, but her attack on every number has a sameness to it, like she's trying to face down Armageddon with every note.
The characterization of Langston is also discordant. His grandfather shows him his prize possession, a gold watch given to him by Martin Luther King Jr. So what does the young man do? He steals it that night and tries to pawn it. Sure, Langston wants money to reunite with his mother, but it's hard to get behind a character who could be so brutally inconsiderate to someone trying to be nice to him. Even worse, he never expresses any regret. Basically, the first half of the movie consists of a teenager's being cold or nasty to everybody.
Whitaker and Bassett's passion and sincerity keep the film going during the rough first half, and when the scene moves to the grandfather's Harlem church on Christmas Eve, "Black Nativity" finally achieves liftoff. Lemmons brings the twin strains of the film together -- the family story and the nativity story -- and leaves audiences with a warm, holiday feeling that had earlier seemed elusive.
"Black Nativity" is a just-OK feature film that, as an hour-long television special, could have had the makings of a classic.
Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @MickLaSalle
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