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Three Christmas movies wrap big year for black film

By CHRIS LEE LOS ANGELES TIMES

This article was published December 13, 2013 at 3:15 a.m.

LOS ANGELES - Time was when Christmas movies were as reliably white as a North Pole winter. Such holiday classics as It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street came to define the American cultural psyche during the holidays for decades. Later films set around Santa’s trip down the chimney - including the blockbuster Home Alone franchise with a cumulative gross of $904 million, 1994’s The Santa Clause and 2003’s Elf - opened Hollywood’s eyes to the upside of decking theater halls with new Christmas stories.

But at the tail end of a banner year for black cinema, three new holiday movies written and directed by black filmmakers present an alternate vision to moviedom’s traditional White Christmas.

Today, A Madea Christmas arrives in theaters with Hollywood’s pre-eminent black movie kingpin, writer-director-star Tyler Perry, in drag as his gun-toting grandmother alter ego Madea.

Already in theaters, Black Nativity, co-starring Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, is an unabashed feel-good adaptation of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes’ widely staged 1961 gospel play, which chronicles the birth of Christ with black performers and traditional spirituals.

The movie that started the season is The Best Man Holiday, a pre-Thanksgiving release plotted around the Christmas reunion of an upwardly mobile group of friends and exes, which took in more than $30 million its opening weekend and has grossed an impressive $67.6 million worldwide.

For Malcolm D. Lee, The Best Man Holiday’s writer-director, three movies aiming for the intersection of holiday togetherness and black experience this year represents a mixed blessing.

“Three black Christmas movies within six weeks of each other makes it a bit nerve-racking,” says Lee, who made his sequel to 1999’s The Best Man for just $17 million.“But they’re all so different. Best Man Holiday is a comedy-drama. Madea’s Christmas is definitely a comedy. And [Black Nativity] is more like a Les Miserables-type of movie, a musical. That’s what’s great about the spectrum of African-American fare this year. There’s a nice diversity of choices for audiences.”

There has also been diversity in the films’ marketing plans: a Sex and the City-styled promo push for The Best Man Holiday, a Harlem Renaissance pedigree for Black Nativity and marquee identification with a hit movie series for A Madea Christmas. Just as there’s not a monolithic black audience, this season’s offerings show that there’s not one formula for black holiday movies.

Zola Mashariki, who rose through the ranks at Fox Searchlight Films to become the studio’s senior vice president of production and co-founded the African Grove Institute for the Arts with playwright August Wilson, says the sudden boom in black Christmas films is emblematic of a larger shift.

“This is a time when so many different stories about black life are being told. That was the dream,” Mashariki says. “Thank God we have a time when three different black movies can be released at Christmastime!”

The black yuletide movie boom is such a cultural talking point that last weekend’s Saturday Night Live skewered the phenomenon with a satirical trailer for a fake film called White Christmas. It was billed as “the first black holiday movie for white people.”

This moment comes less than two years after director Spike Lee told an audience at the Sundance Film Festival that Hollywood studios “know nothing about black people.” The firebrand filmmaker also pointed out that there were no black movie executives with the “greenlight vote” to approve black projects.

This year’s unprecedented number of black movies, filmmakers and performers considered strong contenders in the annual Oscars derby,and the range of black holiday films, including two with broad commercial appeal, show that studios at least understand there’s money and prestige to be gained in movies with black casts and filmmakers.

And the story of how Black Nativity came to theaters shows what a difference an executive can make.

Writer-director Kasi Lemmons casually proposed adapting Black Nativity for the screen when she ran into Fox Searchlight’s Mashariki at the 2009 Film Independent Spirit Awards. Mashariki didn’t hesitate.

Right on the spot, Lemmons recalls, “She said, ‘I’m buying it!’”

A Madea Christmas, Perry’s first to be set in the mistletoe season, will have fewer weeks at the box office before Christmas but comes into theaters with proven crossover appeal. It’s plotted around a mixed-race couple and features white actors, including Larry the Cable Guy and Kathy Najimy in supporting parts. When Perry’s sassy character is coaxed into visiting an overwhelmingly white rural enclave, fish-outof-water hilarity ensues.

“It was just a matter of time before Madea got to Christmas,” notes fellow director Whitmore of Perry’s movie persona. “She’s been everywhere else.”

MovieStyle, Pages 40 on 12/13/2013

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