The Rev. Cornell Cobbs (Forest Whitaker) and his wife, Aretha (Angela Bassett), live in a handsome Harlem brownstone. They are pillars of the community. And when Langston finally finds his way there - after a night in jail (a Times Square rendezvous gone really, really bad) - he and the stern, imposing pastor don't exactly hit it off. Langston may be unaccustomed to saying grace before a meal; he's doubly unaccustomed to hearing the prayer-giver beseech God to deliver a belt to hold Langston's "loose pants up."
Lemmons, director of the very fine Eve's Bayou and the Ralph "Petey" Greene bio Talk to Me (starring Don Cheadle and 12 Years a Slave's Chiwetel Ejiofor), is fearless in her approach: rousing musical numbers, archetypal good guys and bad guys, and a modern-day Joseph and Mary, a homeless couple (Luke James, Grace Gibson) expecting a child. But the archetypes become stereotypes as the plotline (a stolen pocket watch, a mysterious pawnshop employee) unfolds.
Aimed squarely at African American audiences, Black Nativity builds to a big Christmas Eve climax: the setting is the pastor's church, where the traditional sermon becomes something else: a confrontation, a confession. And there's some powerful warbling to do before forgiveness is meted out.
Black Nativity *1/2
Directed by Kasi Lemmons. With Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson, and Jacob Latimore. Distributed by Fox Searchlight.
Running time: 1 hour, 33 mins.
Parent's guide: PG (profanity, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters