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‘Black Nativity’: Jennifer Hudson in a soulful musical sure to lift spirits


Langston Jacob Latimore

Naima Jennifer Hudson

Aretha Cobbs Angela

Cornell Cobbs Forest Whitaker

Fox Searchlight presents a film written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, based on a play by Langston Hughes. Running time: 93 minutes. Rated PG (for thematic material, language and a menacing situation). Opens Wednesday at local theaters.

Updated: December 28, 2013 6:18AM

This holiday season Congo Square Theatre won’t be staging its critically acclaimed production of Langston Hughes’ play “Black Nativity.” But a big-screen version featuring a cast of familiar names is ready to fill the void.

The film, like the play, has a captivating gospel flavor that easily raises the roof beams. Hughes, one of the great writers of the Harlem Renaissance, tells the classic biblical story through African-American scripture, poetry, dance and music. It was first staged Off Broadway in 1961.

Director Kasi Lemmons’ contemporary adaptation is an uplifting holiday extravaganza with a musical score filled with familiar spiritual standards plus some new songs by Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman that underscore themes of faith, healing and family.

In the film, streetwise teen Langston (newcomer Jacob Latimore) and his single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) are facing eviction from their Baltimore home. In an attempt to keep him safe, she sends her unwilling son to live with her estranged parents in Harlem where he is immediately tempted by unwise decisions.

Everything is not copacetic. Langston’s stern grandfather, the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker), is a prominent minister and does not suffer fools. Their relationship is not warm. On the other hand, his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) is a doting grandmother trying to smooth things over.

Lemmons easily intertwines musical numbers into everyday scenes; the intrusions work quite well. Hudson’s vocals are at their regal best as she emotionally belts out several songs. You can feel her pain. The big surprise here is 17-year-old Latimore, a who not only is a gifted singer but also proves he has emotional depth in a range of dramatic scenes.

When the film relocates to Harlem, the music is relegated to the church during a Christmas Eve service where the Rev. Cobbs preaches love, hope and redemption. Musically these scenes are straightforward and not as inventive. However, a dream sequence allows young Langston to relive a modern Nativity scene and take part in a musical number in which Mary J. Blige (in fine voice) portrays a blonde, afro-bedecked angel.

An attempt to inject a streetwise ethos into the film falls flat when set against the film’s sentimental, hopeful preaching. The dark side of the street is inhabited by Vondie Curtis-Hall as a pawnshop owner and Tyrese Gibson as his shady assistant who will prove to be more than he seems.

There’s nothing in “Black Nativity” that is not predictable; you know the ending. With that in mind, it’s the journey that matters. And Lemmons and her cast, aided by some great music, have created an interlude sure to lift the spirit during the holiday season.

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