It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
Earnest, square and proudly evangelical, "Black Nativity" is so unusual that its rough aspects are easy to forgive. Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou," "The Caveman's Valentine"), it's a loose reworking of a 1961 Langston Hughes "gospel-song-play" originally titled "Wasn't It a Mighty Day?" The film's 15-year old hero (singer Jacob Latimore) is named in honor of Hughes, the most important poet of the Harlem Renaissance. The film's modern-day retelling of Christ's birth is sprinkled with lines from Hughes' poetry and the stage production's script, as well as shout-outs to the hero's namesake. These all resonate, thanks to the setting: Harlem. Langston has come to the cultural heart of Black America to stay with his grandparents, the Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett), while his beleaguered single mother Naima (Jennifer Hudson) is battling eviction.
There's not much in the way of plot. What's onscreen feels more like a series of situations, marking Langston's quest to discover his absent father's identity and the reason why he split from his mother. From the minute he gets off the bus from Baltimore, the kid can't win for losing. His bag is stolen in the street. When he goes to a hotel and asks if he can use the phone to call his grandparents, a white patron leaves a wallet on the check-in desk; when Langston hesitates too long before returning it (he's no thug yet, but he could go that route) he's accused of stealing it and thrown in the slammer, where he meets a soft-spoken tough guy named Loot (Tyrese Gibson, in his best screen performance). Loot protects the scrappy Langston from the perils of his own pipsqueak machismo, sitting beside him and talking sense to him instead of getting in his face when the boy tries to act hard in front of the other inmates; he's is one of many inspirational or eccentric characters in "Black Nativity," a morality play so committed to its mission of uplift that it might as well have given all of its characters signs to carry around: "The Convict With a Heart of Gold." "The Guardian Angel." "The Stern Patriarch Whose Heart Will Be Melted by Love."
When Langston finally moves in with his grandparents, we learn a bit about their family history, but only a bit. The Rev. and Aretha tiptoe around the question of Langston's paternity, and there are not-too-subtle hints that Naima's single motherhood and her estrangement from her folks were sparked by the same past trauma. Meanwhile, portents swirl around young Langston. He doesn't know it yet, but he's a pilgrim on a mission to discover his family's history so that he can heal it. He'll grow up in the process, by getting a handle on what sociologists of an earlier era might have called "anti-social tendencies."
The final twenty minutes of "Black Nativity" are set during a production of the same-titled Hughes piece at Cornell's church. This setpiece flows naturally from the rest of the movie, which is choreographed and shot in a very plain manner which confirms that we're seeing a tale that's ultimately more theatrical than cinematic. Characters enter and exit in rather stagey ways, and when the film alludes to mythology or Bible stories, it does it straightforwardly. The Christmas angel is played by Mary J. Blige, sporting a gorgeous platinum natural which, when backlit, becomes a halo. There are Three significant Men who cumulatively bestow Wisdom on our hero. Langston keeps seeing a young couple in the streets—a very pregnant woman and her companion (Luke James and Grace Gibson)—who are immediately recognizable as You Know Who before you learn their names, Jo-Jo and Maria, and hear their holy voices.