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With: Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, Jacob Latimore, Tyrese Gibson, Mary J. Blige, Nas (Nasir Jones), Vondie Curtis-Hall
Written by: Kasi Lemmons, based on a work by Langston Hughes
Directed by: Kasi Lemmons
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic material, language and a menacing situation
Running Time: 93
Date: 11/27/2013

Black Nativity (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

I'll Have a Hughes Christmas

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In her first two films, Eve's Bayou and The Caveman's Valentine, actress-turned-director Kasi Lemmons dabbled in magical realism: certain elements might not actually occur in the natural world. So it follows that she might eventually embrace the musical, with characters suddenly bursting into song, as she does with the new Black Nativity.

Black Nativity is Lemmons' fourth feature film, and -- like the current The Best Man Holiday -- a kind of bittersweet, urban Christmas movie. It starts, establishing its rhythmic roots in the poet Langston Hughes, before awkwardly launching into its first song. It's sung by Langston (Jacob Latimore), a modern-day Baltimore teen named after the poet.

At Christmastime, his mom (Jennifer Hudson) is struggling to make the rent, so she makes a desperate decision and sends Langston to Harlem to live with her estranged parents, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett). The Reverend is an upright fellow, stern and unyielding, but Whitaker's performance eventually reveals a great deal of pain and sacrifice made. Opposite him, Bassett is equally wonderful.

Langston is expected to follow the rules of the house, which includes attending the Reverend's church, and especially his annual Christmas sermon. But he would rather help his mother raise the rent money by any means necessary. He begins hanging out at a nearby pawnshop and meets the shady Tyson (Tyrese Gibson).

All of these characters join in the singing, though the music is not exactly Christmasy. It encompasses gospel and hip-hop, but is slow, and full of sorrow and sometimes rage. It deliberately avoids catchy rhythms or sing-a-long lyrics. (It's no Dreamgirls.)

At the Christmas sermon, Langston dozes off and has a fragmented dream about the nativity story mixed with his own life, accompanied by a song by Mary J. Blige and Nas. It's too bad that this powerful moment has such a harsh, realistic look, likely owing to a use of digital video. Lemmons' Eve's Bayou had lush, dreamy cinematography that helped smooth the boundaries between realism and magic.

The lines in Black Nativity are more sharply defined, giving the film a strange, jagged effect. However, Lemmons often makes use of this rhythm with some clever, precisely placed juxtaposition.

Some viewers may be turned off by the film's general downbeat tone, or with its overt religiousness. However, the movie's ultimate point is not about finding God, but in embracing family. That's a lovely idea to hang onto this holiday season.

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