'Black Nativity" is a musical updating of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes' play, based very loosely on the way Jesus of Nazareth entered the world in a manger in Bethlehem. Once it finds its footing, this Harlem variation on the Nativity story manages to be sweet enough to touch people the way Christianity's "Greatest Story Ever Told" always has.
Credit the cast and a sympathetic handling of the material by writer-director Kasi Lemmons ("Talk to Me," "Eve's Bayou"). They ensure that the sentimental never turns maudlin, and that even the sermonizing goes down lightly.
Jacob Latimore is Langston, a Baltimore teen who narrates his biography in rhymed couplets, but whose mom (Jennifer Hudson) is about to lose their home. Mom packs him off to live with her estranged parents, a preacher (Forest Whitaker) and his wife (Angela Bassett). In Whitaker's masterful hands, the reverend is an emotional man betraying moments of guilt and a need to relate to this grandson he's never known. Bassett gives a busier performance as a grandmother trying too hard to connect with the boy in the hopes he'll lead to a reunion with his mother. Langston has shown up on Christmas Eve; his grandfather's church is famous for its "Black Nativity" pageant -- a Kwanzaa-meets-New Testament spectacle that the kid, obsessed with getting Mom's mortgage money, isn't interested in.
This being a musical, and one featuring the Oscar-winning Hudson, characters break into song, lamenting their lives, their lost childhoods or lost child. The music, by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq, is forgettably generic modern soul with hints of hip-hop. But it is nicely integrated into the story, and the production uses polished singers Hudson and Latimore to buttress the less-known-for-their-singing Bassett and Whitaker.
Lemmons keeps the film brisk and brief, not allowing it to overstay its welcome. It may not reach the status of "holiday classic," but the high-minded "Black Nativity" is still a modestly entertaining and uplifting version of a "greatest story" that has proved as malleable as it is timeless.
PLOT A Baltimore teen raised by a single mother spends Christmas with his estranged -- and strict -- grandparents.
CAST Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett
BOTTOM LINE Uplifting and modestly entertaining.