'Black Nativity' overflowing with holiday spirit

The Fresno BeeNovember 25, 2013 

Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett in "Black Nativity."

SPECIAL TO THE BEE

It's wonderful to have a feature film like "Black Nativity" released in time for the holidays that actually deals with a Christmas theme and has solid writing and standout performances.

If this doesn't put you in the proper holiday spirit then you have a heart 10 times smaller than the one that beats inside the Grinch.

Be warned. It might catch you off guard that the film version of "Black Nativity" is a musical. Those who know the original stage production, written by Langston Hughes, know it featured an all-black cast telling the story of the birth of Jesus through original and traditional Christmas carols.

The stage show is at the core of the film, but director/screenwriter Kasi Lemmons ("Talk to Me") uses the Nativity story as a backdrop for a compelling story about a family in crisis, played out to an expanded musical score.

Lemmons turns the focus on Langston (Jacob Latimore), a teen living with the pain caused by a father who left him when he was a child. Just days before Christmas, his mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), must send Langston to Harlem to stay with the grandparents he has never met. He goes, despite the pain he feels being abandoned by his mother.

"Black Nativity" rises above the standard holiday film because of the strong writing, acting and music. There's always going to be a certain amount of sentimentality that comes with such emotional redemption tales. That's cushioned by the smart choices Lemmons makes.

The standard approach to this kind of story is to have the protagonist already well down the path of sin. Bringing someone back from such a long and winding road often feels manipulative or forced. Because Lemmons quickly shows that Langston has a good heart and is only facing bad decisions, the transformation that eventually comes feels real and grounded.

Casting is so critical when the central figure is played by a young actor. Latimore answers the call with a performance that ties all the emotional elements together while also providing a singing voice that explodes off the screen. This is a young actor to watch because of his wide range of talents.

It helps he is surrounded by one of the strongest ensemble casts of the year. Forest Whitaker continues his phenomenal acting year — highlighted by his Oscar-worthy work in "The Butler" — with a convincing performance as Langston's preacher grandfather. He is a man who has made decisions his whole life based on faith and family, both tested on Christmas Eve.

Equally as strong are Angela Bassett as Langston's grandmother, who brings an emotional core, and Hudson, who supplies a powerful singing and acting effort. Even Tyrese Gibson turns in a musical performance that is as strong as his acting.

Seeing "Black Nativity" is like an early Christmas gift. The best thing that to say about this powerful story brought to life by a first-rate cast is hallelujah.

Movie review

"Black Nativity," rated PG for adult themes. Stars Jacob Latimore, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyreese Gibson. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Running time: 96 minutes. Grade: A-

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TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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