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'Best Man Holiday,' 'Black Nativity,' Madea are merrily diverse

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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 African American cinema, three new holiday movies written and directed by black filmmakers present an alternate vision to moviedom's traditional White Christmas.

On Dec. 13, "Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas" arrives in theaters with Hollywood's preeminent African American movie kingpin, writer-director-star Perry, in drag as his gun-toting grandmother alter ego Madea.

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Already in theaters, "Black Nativity," costarring 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 African American 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 Misérables'-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 to make."

There's 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.

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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. The films of 2013 have effectively banished Hollywood's accepted logic that African American movies have to be set in an "urban" milieu to connect with audiences.

"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 African American 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 African American movie executives with the "greenlight vote" to approve black projects.

This year's unprecedented number of African American 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.

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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!'"

Mashariki knew Hughes' soul-stirring stage production well. Over the last five-plus decades, "Black Nativity," a perennial staged in theaters, churches and colleges across the country, has come to signify Christmastime for generations of black Americans. She knew a movie version would have a built-in audience.

"I was like, 'Why didn't I ever think of this?'" says Mashariki, who doesn't have full greenlight power but was responsible for urging Fox Searchlight to put "Black Nativity" into production with a $17.5-million budget.

The film, which received mixed reviews and has made a respectable $6.4 million, may not have the crossover appeal of "The Best Man Holiday" and "A Madea Christmas," but with its potential to become a holiday movie tradition for African American families, it might have the most longevity.

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"The holidays are a time when we want to be with family and experience movies we associate with feelings of warmth and togetherness," Lemmons says. "You want something that everyone is going to take something from. I think that's the real appeal."

Before this year, African American-centered Christmas movies have had a mixed track record. "Last Holiday" (2006) starring Queen Latifah and the ensemble dramedy "The Perfect Holiday" (2007) fizzled upon release. But producer-rapper-actor Ice Cube's 2002 urban holiday comedy "Friday After Next" performed respectably at the box office. And 1996's "The Preacher's Wife" (starring Denzel Washington and Whitney Houston) had a modest theatrical run before posting strong DVD sales.

"This Christmas," a 2007 family film, stands as the genre's breakout hit. Shot on a relatively slim $13-million budget, the film grossed nearly $50 million and persuaded many Hollywood studio executives of the financial viability of African American holiday fare.

"Originally, the producers and the studio wanted to release the movie right at Christmas," says "This Christmas" writer-director Preston Whitmore II. "I objected. If you have a good picture released around Thanksgiving, you can take advantage of two holidays. It performed for five weeks. It got two bumps."

That's the story this year for "The Best Man Holiday," which capitalized on the audience goodwill that made "The Best Man" a modest hit 14 years ago. It opened Nov. 15 and confounded box-office expectations when it surpassed pre-release tracking estimates. With more than three weeks remaining in the holiday season, the film continues to do strong business.

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"The notion of a holiday movie set in the holiday season felt like a destination for a lot of people," says Universal Pictures' co-president of production Jeffrey Kirschenbaum. "And it has a brand underneath it. People who had seen the original came back."

"A lot of women and, in particular, black women are treating this like 'Sex and the City,'" notes "Best Man's" writer-director Lee. "They're organizing parties, book clubs, dinner and a movie; they're going to discuss it afterward. They're gonna go see it again."

"A Madea Christmas," Perry's first to be set around 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-out-of-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."

chris.lee@latimes.com

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