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posted: 11/27/2013 6:00 AM

'Black Nativity' makes rough transition to screen

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  • Naima (Jennifer Hudson) must send her son Langston (Jacob Latimore) to live with her estranged parents in "Black Nativity."

      Naima (Jennifer Hudson) must send her son Langston (Jacob Latimore) to live with her estranged parents in "Black Nativity."

  • When his estranged daughter falls on hard times, a minister (Forest Whitaker, left) takes in his grandson (Jacob Latimore) in "Black Nativity."

      When his estranged daughter falls on hard times, a minister (Forest Whitaker, left) takes in his grandson (Jacob Latimore) in "Black Nativity."

 
By Justin Chang
Variety

A child is born, a family is healed and a sermon on forgiveness is delivered with sledgehammer subtlety in "Black Nativity," a bold but clumsy attempt to bring Langston Hughes' popular musical to life onscreen.

You have to admire the earnest, nakedly emotional approach taken by writer-director Kasi Lemmons as she seeks a free-form cinematic equivalent of Hughes' stage show-cum-worship service -- a rousing fusion of pageantry, gospel music and 19th-century folk spirituals.

But the film miscalculates by planting this African-American interpretation of the nativity story at the center of an angsty troubled-teen melodrama that simply fails to inspire belief.

Days before Christmas, moody Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) learns that he and his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), are about to be evicted. Although Naima has been estranged from her parents for years, she sends Langston to New York to spend the holidays with the grandparents he's never met, Baptist minister Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett).

The director also introduces a contemporary version of Mary and Joseph in the form of a homeless, pregnant couple (Grace Gibson, Luke James) whose lovely rendition of "Silent Night" leads into a plaintive number about life on the streets; the sequence is peppered with hip-hop riffs and fluidly lensed by Anastos Michos.

Lemmons advances this story with straight-faced conviction, orchestrating narrative and spectacle with a grandiosity that proves easier to admire from a distance than it is to engage with onscreen.

It doesn't help that R&B pop star Latimore doesn't really draw the audience in, though the more seasoned actors do fine work: Whitaker slips easily into the robe of a pastor whose passion is matched by his eloquence. And although Naima largely vanishes from the story early on, Hudson reappears in musical interludes throughout, her powerhouse vocals playing a sort of guardian-diva role in this increasingly tangled story.

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