Writer-director Kasi Lemmons hasn't had a feature in theaters since 2007's "Talk to Me," a vibrant biopic that told the story of radio DJ Petey Greene. That film was all about the power of words. Lemmons' new film, "Black Nativity," concerns good deeds and great songs, as it struggles to find a cinematic home for the 1961 Langston Hughes "gospel-song-play" setting of the Nativity story.
For decades, "Black Nativity" has proven a mighty annual savior for many an African-American theater company. This is not a set-in-stone text, and the material encourages interpreters to find their own blend of spirituals and gospel standards.
Lemmons adds a framing device that threatens to crush the picture. A Baltimore teenager named Langston, played by Jacob Latimore, is sent by his recently unemployed mother (Jennifer Hudson) to spend the holidays with the boy's estranged grandparents. Grandfather, played by Forest Whitaker, is a Baptist minister, married to Angela Bassett's Aretha. Their relationship with their daughter is a fraught and weighty affair, which must be righted, right about the time "Black Nativity" gets to the Christmas Eve church service, complete with Mary J. Blige as an angel.
Lemmons fashions a dream sequence during that lengthy climax, in which the dozing Langston imagines the Nativity to be taking place in modern-day Times Square. Tyrese Gibson, Vondie Curtis Hall and Nasir Jones round out the ensemble. Many original songs share the soundtrack with the traditional "Motherless Child," "Silent Night," "The First Noel" and "Can't Stop Praising His Name." It's a heady mixture.
Whitaker's performance is the rock here. Even when the confrontations and evasions get ridiculous, he's neither wholly saint nor sinner, but something like a human being.
MPAA rating: PG
Running time: 1:33