Every so often, movie-studio executives suddenly seem to wake up and realize that white people aren't the only ones who go see movies, and that black audiences in particular are an underserved market. That results in periods like the current holiday season, which sees the release of a whopping three Christmas-themed releases targeted toward African-American audiences. It's an occurrence that shouldn't be rare in this day and age, but somehow still is. "Black Nativity" is the second film in the festive triptych (following "The Best Man Holiday" and preceding "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas," which comes out this Friday), and it boasts a cast that's full of Oscar luminaries. Unfortunately, despite their best efforts, the film isn't much more than a heaping helping of holiday sap.
"Black Nativity" is loosely inspired by poet Langston Hughes' 1961 play, which was a straightforward musical retelling of the classic Nativity story, with an all-black cast. The film, on the other hand, creates a plot following teenager Langston (Jacob Latimore) as he's sent by his struggling single mother, Naima (Jennifer Hudson), to stay with his grandparents in Harlem for the holidays while she plans their next steps. Up until this point, the Reverend Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett), haven't played a role in their grandson's life, and they remain cagey about what transpired between his mother and them that led to the severing of ties. But they do their best to make him feel welcome, and with their guidance Langston gradually learns the value of faith, family, and forgiveness.
The film remains a musical, telling its story through a mix of gospel standards and new R&B-leaning songs by Raphael Saadiq. His songs are effective, but hardly memorable.
The performances are fine for the most part. Jacob Latimore acquits himself well, in a role that's a bit of a blank slate. Whitaker is effective as the distant Cornell, and he's completely believable when he's called upon to start sermonizing. Bassett is an unexpected choice as Aretha. She's quite good, but the role is all sweet and nurturing, and doesn't really call for any of the strength she naturally brings to any part she plays. Hudson is at her best when she's singing, and spends the rest of her screen time looking vaguely stricken. Tyrese Gibson is charismatic as a small-time crook who crosses paths with Langston and imparts a few life lessons.
The film suffers from uneven direction from Kasi Lemmons, who at this point seems to have almost completely squandered the potential shown in her directorial debut, the atmospheric 1997 Southern Gothic fable, "Eve's Bayou." Her script admirably attempts to tackle some common issues facing the black community, but the result would be more effective and moving if it didn't hinge on a contrived climax (featuring what has to be the most understanding police officer in all of New York City) that's so silly, sappy and ham-fisted that it verges on laughable.