Foreclosed upon and facing an eviction notice, single Baltimore mom Naima (Jennifer Hudson) decides work is imperative over Christmas and so sends her seventeen year-old son Langston (Jacob Latimore, "Vanishing on 7th Street") to spend it with her estranged parents in Harlem. Upon his arrival in Times Square, Langston is immediately robbed of his backpack and his attempt at an act of kindness lands him in jail. There he is picked up by his proud grandfather, Reverend Cornell (Forest Whitaker), who expects his grandson to attend his church production of "Black Nativity."
Writer/director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou," "Talk to Me") updates Langston Hughes's Gospel musical with an urban tale with rap and R&B influences, but while her film is full of beautiful music, it's execution is a herky jerky affair. Lemmons adds themes of religious hypocrisy and the cyclical effects of poverty, but marries the two for her resolution, abandoning real answers for a fairy tale climax while her symbolic Mary (Grace Gibson) and Joseph (Luke James) figures are left out in the cold.
Naima could, in fact, be a post-Nativity Mary, losing her home while she sends her child away to be gifted by wealth. Langston is a good kid who adores his mom but resents being sent away and is tempted to turn to crime to help her dig out from her financial crisis. He gets a great opportunity at the reception desk of a pricey NYC hotel (he's gone in to beg use of a phone) when a man leaves his wallet on the counter, but his return of the item is misinterpreted based on his appearance. In a holding cell, he's belittled by Loot (Tyrese Gibson), who dubs him 'lunch money,' but Langston gives as good as he gets and leaves an impression. His grandfather will be a tougher nut to crack.
Langston's grandmother Aretha (Angela Bassett) welcomes him with open arms, but is reluctant to tell him just why they're estranged from their daughter even if she does fill in a bit about his unknown dad. His grandfather unwittingly opens the door to temptation and once again Langston waivers between good and bad intentions. When he runs into Loot outside a pawn shop, the die would appear to be cast.
But there's really nothing surprising about how any of this turns out. Lemmons has gathered an appealing ensemble, giving a few the opportunity to show us what they've got. Young Latimore is sympathetic in the lead and can carry a musical number (his first, "Motherless Child," is given a slow tempo jazz cum rap treatment with a fellow bus traveler named Isaiah (Nas)). Jennifer Hudson is solid as the troubled mom and has the movie's big, power numbers. Tyrese Gibson goes a lot deeper than his "Fast & Furious" outings as a man who lost his way settling for his lot. Bassett and Whitaker even sing, but although most musical numbers flow naturally from the narrative, one of the loveliest songs - "Hush Child (Get You Through This Silent Night)" - awkwardly segues from reality to dream (Lemmons uses this device twice, the 2nd more successfully).
The film's third act uses the Reverend's Christmas show as a jumping off point to cast and reel in various plot lines amidst rousing spiritual numbers (Mary J. Blige, first met briefly as a kind stranger on the street, is the show's white-afro'ed Angel). It all gets to be a bit much, but it's heart is in the right place and the music is infectious.
Robin did not see this film.
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