Since it was first performed in New York in December 1961, Langston Hughes’s all-African-American musical retelling of the birth of Christ has become a Christmas staple in the US. Different artists have refitted the author’s gospel-flavoured book and libretto to changing times, and for this alternately middling and moving film version, actress-turned-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 happens to be putting on his own production of ‘Black Nativity’.
There are numerous secrets for agitated Langston 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 this 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, and her cast belts out the tunes – a nice mix of gospel standards and modern R&B – with the kind of skill, insight and passion you wish defined the movie as a whole.