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'Black Nativity' brings Christmas revelers a new classic

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Black Nativity

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It’s officially Christmastime, and with "Black Nativity", revelers have another perennial for their list. It’s a perfect antidote to the Black Friday adrenaline rush and a heartwarming kickoff to Christmas.

"Black Nativity" brings us the yuletide tale of teenaged Langston, fatherless son of a young single mother, facing extreme crisis just at the age at which he’s old enough to be able to force a solution but young enough not to be able to appreciate the true consequences of his methods.

Sent by struggling mom Naima to live with his estranged and utterly unknown grandparents in another city, Langston can’t comprehend the sacrificial nature of Naima’s action, and knows only that his entire world has just come undone. He’s torn by the evident love and stability of his grandparents and the equally evident hostility of his bereft mother toward them, and amid his focused quest to reunite himself with his mother, he begins to sense that there’s a huge untold story swirling around him...

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (widely known as Clarice Starling’s sidekick Ardelia Mapp), "Black Nativity" is inspired by the 1961 play of the same name by Langston Hughes. Langston Hughes was one of the most prolific, celebrated, accomplished, and influential literary artists of the American 20th century, and "Black Nativity" is being performed annually to this day from Boston to Seattle.

Under Lemmons’ skilled hand, "Black Nativity" rests upon the play as foundation, lives within modern urban perspective (vs. that of 1961 or six hours BCE), gracefully weaves in other poetic works by Hughes, and operates on several levels in a deceptively complex tapestry. One could call it a competent tale of the contemporary clashes and family estrangement, a respectful reimagining of some of our greatest literature, or a skilled depiction of the Christmas story and its larger context (including angels among us and a little Easter thrown in to boot), and one would be correct. It’s a tale of people left out in the cold literally, figuratively, emotionally, and economically, and the warmth that comes from the unlikeliest people imaginable.

The cast do Lemmons proud, with impressive young Jacob Latimore as Langston (carrying the production in very nearly every scene), Jennifer Hudson as the devoted Naima (get ready with the Kleenex every time she sings, as per usual), Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett as Langston’s grandparents (really can’t go wrong there), and Tyrese Gibson as the foreshadowing of Langston’s apparent future. At one point his dialogue glides elegantly into Hughes’ poem "A Dream Deferred", and Gibson delivers an emotional knockout worth the price of admission alone.

For those who observe a faith-based Christmas (as do I), "Black Nativity" may well become a perennial as an oddly satisfying pairing with "It’s a Wonderful Life". For those who celebrate either a secular Christmas or another faith altogether, it will be enjoyable if arguably less resonant; I, for example, very much appreciate "A Price Above Rubies", "Doubt", and "Keeping the Faith", even though I am neither Jewish nor Catholic.

"Black Nativity" exhibits great precision, and great universality (just like its spiritual underpinnings); it’s 21st century contemporary, yet timeless and enduring.While those facing our characters’ particular challenges will feel the story most keenly, all of us may find relevance and encouragement regarding our own experience. The tale is moving on many levels (perhaps even deeply so), and features a gorgeous, modern rendition of the nativity story. If you’re among the faith-based audience, it’s a good idea to catch it right away, as you’ll likely want an encore before the 25th.

Kasi Lemmons has done well. And Tyrese Gibson can recite poetry to me anytime.

Story: A teen finds himself sent to live with family far away at Christmas, and in seeking solutions, finds there's much more underway than he knows

Genre: Drama, musical, holiday

Starring: Jacob Latimore, Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Grace Gibson, Luke James, Mary J. Blige, Nas

Directed by: Kasi Lemmons (who also wrote the screenplay)

MPAA: PG for thematic elements

Running time: 93 minutes

Official site: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/blacknativity/

Houston release date: November 27, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Nov 20th at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX

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