One of the many works produced by poet and author Langston Hughes, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, was his 1961 Christmas pageant and gospel production, Black Nativity, which has become a mainstay of African-American churches at holiday time.
Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) has made the holiday pageant the centrepiece of this earnest melodramatic musical about a Baltimore teenager (pop star Jacob Latimore) who is sent to Harlem to live with his grandfather, Baptist minister Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife Aretha (Angela Bassett) when his out-of-work mother (Jennifer Hudson) is facing eviction.
For much of the film, Langston learns lessons from gramps about the civil rights struggle while trying to uncover the secret of why his mother is estranged from the family and the identity of his father. A subplot about Langston’s criminal attempt to get a present for his mother feels entirely bogus.
As Glee fans know, though, musicals aren’t about the plot and the singing here is first-rate, from the angel-voiced Latimore to the usual rafter-rattling Jennifer Hudson. The stagey gospel finale is rousing, even if the dramatic resolution defies rather than inspires belief.