Black Nativity's soul-stirring light entertainment shouldn't be taken for granted 

Joyful Noise

Joyful Noise

Kasi Lemmons' Black Nativity has only a bare-bones connection to the legendary original Langston Hughes production — it doesn't match or equal the socio-political heft of the 1961 Broadway version, whose cast included Marion Williams. But this is not so much an adaptation as a reworking, especially for anyone who's seen a production of the vintage version that brilliantly blends traditional spirituals and Christmas carols with Hughes' crackling, powerful prose and scriptural references.

Affecting and superbly sung, if dramatically erratic, the 21st century Black Nativity is a well-intentioned inspirational tale of family perseverance against difficult odds. It opens with Naima (Jennifer Hudson) discovering that her holiday future is far from bright. She's about to lose a lengthy battle to maintain her home, and son Langston (Jacob Latimore), sent to Baltimore to visit his grandparents, is anything but understanding. Not only doesn't he know these people, he has little interest in meeting or learning more about them.

The grandparents have their own issues, as there's a prickly situation between them and Naima that hasn't been resolved. But the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) open their doors to Langston and try to forge some understanding. Another subplot involves a troubled street-smart figure known as Loot (Tyrese Gibson).

Unless you're Scrooge incarnate or someone who hates modern gospel, it's impossible not to be moved by the singing. Hudson is delightful in all her performances, and Latimore does an excellent job on "Motherless Child" in particular. Raphael Saadiq took great care of the musical end, and Lemmons (the actress turned filmmaker who made such an impressive directorial debut with Eve's Bayou) even contributed some songs.

The storyline is both pat and predictable, but the cast executes it in a pleasing, even rousing, fashion. Whitaker spent many hours studying and interacting with famed Harlem minister Rev. Calvin Butts, and he does a respectable job conveying the stature and theatrical flourishes of an influential black clergyman who's also widely viewed as a community leader. (He's also the vehicle for some of the script's nods to black cultural controversies — "sagging pants" do not escape his view.)

Black Nativity is far from heavy viewing — and in the end, that's its most winning quality. Lemmons stages the musical and dance sequences with palpable affection for her performers, who radiate a feel-good optimism in the face of bleak times that's infectious. Given what so many people are facing, despite this being the holiday season and a supposed time of good cheer, that shouldn't be dismissed as unimportant.



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