Black Nativity: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Harlem

by Ethan Alter November 27, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Black Nativity</i>: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Harlem

In its original incarnation, Langston Hughes's enduring Christmas musical Black Nativity -- which premiered Off-Broadway in the early '60s and has been revived annually ever since -- was a straightforward re-telling of the Nativity story (you know -- manger, three wise men, virgin birth, the whole deal) featuring the not-at-all straightforward (at the time, anyway) sight of an all-black cast recounting the birth of Jesus through song and dance. That performance serves as the centerpiece of the new film version of Black Nativity, with the impressive ensemble -- including Oscar winners Forrest Whitaker and Jennifer Hudson, Oscar nominee Angela Bassett, Grammy winner Mary J. Blige and… um, Tyrese Gibson -- participating in a recreation of the Nativity story that begins on a church dais before spilling out onto the streets of Harlem. Scored to soaring gospel numbers (sung in power-ballad fashion by Hudson et al.) and unfolding against an intriguingly hallucinatory urban backdrop, this sequence is the highlight of the movie and points to why the Hughes's stage piece has endured all these years. Unfortunately, the new stuff surrounding it is far less timeless, making the movie resemble a musty period piece from the '60s.

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