Langston, the troubled teen at the heart of "Black Nativity," has been named for Langston Hughes, the great Harlem-based poet/playwright famous for the Christmas pageant for which Kasi Lemmons's new film is based. Loosely based, that is, because this joyous, spiritually-driven work retells the birth of Christ only in passing; yet it informs the familiar story of family dysfunction in ways that elevate it out of the ordinary.
Written and directed by Lemmons, who remembers falling in love with Hughes' piece seeing it in Boston as a child, it is told in bold strokes. There's little subtlety in the story-telling, which follows what happens when Langston (a pouty Jacob Latimore) must travel to New York City from his hometown of Baltimore to spend the holidays with his grandparents. Not that he wants to; in fact, he's never met his grandparents - a Harlem reverend and his wife. Naima (Jennifer Hudson), his mother, has been estranged from them since his birth for reasons that have never been explained. Nor does he know who his father is; and the reasons why haunt him. What's prompting his move is that Naima is about to lose their home in foreclosure, making it either a bus trip north or a homeless shelter.
It's only minutes after his arrival that he's picked-up by the police for what appears to be an attempted burglary. It's not, but it gets him off on a bad foot with his crotchety grandfather (a well-cast Forest Whittaker). His grandmother (a radiant Angela Bassett) is more sympathetic; but Langston will have none of it. He wants to return to Baltimore to spend the holiday with his mother and sets out to steal a family heirloom to do so.
But before he can do so, he's forced to attend his grandfather's annual Black Nativity ceremony - a retelling of the Christmas story told through spirituals and sermons. Bored, Langston dreams his own version of the holiday story, replete with Mary J. Blige as a winged angel singing to a congregation of dancers in what appears to be a rather dated music video. This follows a Nativity scene set in Times Square replete with camels and an appearance by Hudson on a Jumbotron. Though she may be a few hundred miles away, Hudson finds her way into the narrative time and again, at one point singing a duet with her estranged mother.
It is certainly shrewd of Lemmons to maximize Hudson's presence, or rather, her splendid pipes. Her acting may be wooden at times, but when she sings, this movie soars. It was also most shrewd of Lemmons to give the story a magical sense through its songs, which are used to amplify the emotional subtexts in ways far more nuanced than the script may suggest. Two moments stay in memory: in one Langston sings "Motherless Child" on the bus to New York, where he is joined by other weary travelers; in another, a pregnant teenager and her boyfriend sing "Silent Night," giving the most traditional of carols new meaning. It is moments like this that make "Black Nativity" more than a made-for-television special it could have easily become.