Since it was first performed Off Broadway in December 1961, Langston Hughes’s all-African-American musical retelling of the birth of Christ has become a holiday perennial. Different artists have adapted the author’s gospel-flavored book and libretto to changing times, and for this alternately middling and moving film version, writer-director Kasi Lemmons (Talk to Me) has created a modern-day framing story. Baltimore teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) is sent by his financially strapped mother (Jennifer Hudson) to NYC, to spend Christmas with his estranged grandparents, jittery Aretha (Angela Bassett) and stern Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker)—the latter of whom just happens to be putting on his own production of Black Nativity.
There are numerous secrets for our agitated adolescent protagonist to uncover and plenty of long-dormant spirits to awaken in time for Christmas Day. However, though Lemmons’s parable-like intentions are clear, almost every beat of Langston’s tale, with its absent father figures and heated gun-pointing melodrama, rings false—hardly a fitting contemporary complement to the Greatest Story Ever Told. Lemmons still makes terrific use of the Harlem locales (there’s a particularly beautiful ballad sung in the shadow of the Apollo Theater), and her cast belts out the tunes—a nice mix of gospel standards and modern R&B compiled by music supervisors Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq—with the kind of skill, insight and passion you wish characterized the movie as a whole.
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