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
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, "
Already in theaters, "Black Nativity," costarring Oscar winners
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
There's also been diversity in the films' marketing plans: a
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
The African American yuletide movie boom is such a cultural talking point that last weekend's
This moment comes less than two years after director Spike Lee told an audience at the
This year's unprecedented number of African American movies, filmmakers and performers considered strong contenders in the annual
And the story of how "Black Nativity" came to theaters shows what a difference an executive can make.
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.
"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
"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.
"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
"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."