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3 Christmas movies cap a big year for African-American cinema

| Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 8:55 p.m.

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.

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

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 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'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.

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.”

Chris Lee is a staff writer for Los Angeles Times.

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