Opens Wed., Nov. 27 at Pacific Place and other theaters. Rated PG. 93 minutes.
Adapting Langston Hughes’ 50-year-old stage musical, itself based on two-millennia-old Bible stories and favorite gospel themes from the black church, is not an easy task in the year of our Lord 2013. Teens are sexting and on Twitter. The old hymns lack a hip-hop beat. How can this movie be sold to pious grandmothers and their saggy-pants grandkids? Writer/director Kasi Lemmons never really solves this dilemma, but so what? There’s enough gospel singing, rap interludes, Scripture, street life, and Biblical dream sequences to satisfy a Sunday matinee audience. If Mary and Joseph and camels are walking through modern-day Times Square, no cabbies rudely honk. The story and dialogue are entirely schematic, but the important notes ring clear and true.
These are: the longing of 15-year-old Langston (Jacob Latimore) for an intact family; the stinging rejection of his single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) by her preacher father (Forest Whitaker); and the path by which all parties converge on Christmas Eve in Harlem, where Hughes’ Black Nativity is being performed in a small Baptist church. Hudson isn’t much of an actress, and Whitaker certainly can’t sing. (As his smiling wife, Angela Bassett is reduced to a Martha Stewart Living brownstone accoutrement, like an elegant oven mitt.) The new songs don’t match the old Sunday church standards, and Langston’s transformation from punk to prodigal is entirely routine. Still, there’s a distinction between hokum and the acceptably sappy, and this Nativity manages to sit on the right side of the pew.