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Originally published November 26, 2013 at 12:12 AM | Page modified November 27, 2013 at 1:24 PM

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Let’s hear a ‘hallelujah’ for ‘Black Nativity’

A three-star review of the timely and tuneful “Black Nativity,” a musical based on Langston Hughes’ gospel play.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3 stars

‘Black Nativity,’ with Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Tyrese Gibson, Jacob Latimore, Mary J. Blige, Nasir Jones, Vondie Curtis Hall, Jennifer Hudson. Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, based on the play by Langston Hughes. 93 minutes. Rated PG for thematic material, language, and a menacing situation. Several theaters.

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In a year mostly bereft of screen musicals, here’s one just in time for the holidays. “Black Nativity,” based on the Langston Hughes play (a rousing musical version of which has been a Seattle theater tradition for many years), is a contemporary Christmas story. A teenage boy named Langston (Jacob Latimore) is sent to New York by his struggling single mother (Jennifer Hudson) to spend the holidays with his grandparents (Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett), whom he has never met. Langston is understandably bitter, but finally comes to comprehend the family’s estrangement — and, as the Christmas lights sparkle and voices rise in gospel music, all ends with irresistible joy.

Adapted and directed by Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s Bayou”), “Black Nativity” is such a likable and positive experience that you readily forgive its bumpy moments. It’s no easy trick to direct a musical — to make it seem believable and natural that people strolling down a city street might sing their feelings — but Lemmons and her strong cast mostly pull it off. (That is, “mostly”; a moment in which Whitaker, in the middle of an emotional group hug, starts to sing into the microphone that he’s conveniently holding, is unintentionally funny.) And while the moments in which dialogue becomes Hughes’ poetry sometimes feel a little jarring, the language is beautiful; you wish people really did speak this way.

Bassett and Whitaker, as the grandparents, marvelously portray two people who hide their broken hearts behind a veil of correctness (these two actors elevate every movie they’re in), and young Latimore has an ease and charisma that draws you to him, even when his Langston is being surly. Hudson, whose role is much smaller, remains an uncertain actress but a knockout singer; the musical scenes play to her strengths, as she raises the roof in song. “Black Nativity” will surely lift spirits — a timely, and tuneful, holiday gift.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

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