As the television industry continues to deck the halls with more than 130 original holiday-themed films, this year’s slate has more of a diverse and inclusive feel as people of color continue to influence holiday images and storylines on the screen and behind the camera.
An unprecedented number of this season’s holiday films have persons of color in leading roles or as executive producers, eager to reach audiences who over the years have felt underserved or unseen in movies from this genre, according to industry observers.
Paramount’s BET Plus and VH1, for example, will offer 14 original Christmas-
themed films featuring predominantly African-American casts, up from 11 a year ago. Lifetime will deliver 15 holiday originals featuring actors of color in starring roles.
Hallmark Channel, Netflix, UPtv and Great American Family also are featuring movies with inclusive casts and high-profile talent to help ring in the holidays. Entertainers of color such as Rita Moreno (Lifetime's Santa Bootcamp), Freddie Prinze Jr. (Netflix’s Christmas With You), Gladys Knight (Great American Family’s Someday at Christmas), Mario Lopez (Lifetime's Stepping Into the Holidays) and Loretta Devine (VH1’s All I Didn’t Want for Christmas) are starring in holiday-themed films through the end of December.
Just as impressive, celebrities such as Jamie Foxx (VH1’s Hip Hop Family Christmas Wedding), Toni Braxton (Lifetime’s A Christmas Spark), Robin Givens (BET Plus’s The Christmas Clapback) and Idris Elba (VH1’s A New Diva’s Christmas Carol) have taken the directorial and executive producer reins in an effort to deliver more authentic holiday stories.
The holiday programming genre needs to make more room for unique portrayals of how people of color (who are major consumers of entertainment) experience the festive season in order to remain viable and attractive to an increasingly diverse population, network executives said.
Authentic, Inclusive Fare
“I think it’s important for us to maintain authenticity and inclusiveness when focusing on the holidays,” Lifetime executive VP of movie, limited series and original movie acquisitions Tanya Lopez said. “Just looking at an image and saying, ‘that person is my skin color,’ is not enough.”
Of Lifetime’s 26 new original holiday movies, 60% feature a person of color either in front of or behind the camera. Lopez said the network’s holiday films over the years have consistently featured inclusive casts, and this year the network offered more films with directors of color.
Lifetime’s lineup of holiday films directed and executive-produced by people of color includes A New Orleans Noel, executive-produced by actress Keshia Knight Pulliam, and Kirk Franklin’s The Night Before Christmas, executive-produced by the gospel songwriter.
“It’s been part of our DNA for so long that we haven’t seen it as a big pivot at all,” Lopez said. “We want to show as many holiday family traditions, no matter what that looks like.”
Holiday stories told from a different perspective give viewers a glimpse of life that doesn’t revolve around the tropes typically associated with seasonal films, said Knight Pulliam, who played Rudy Huxtable in the 1980s sitcom The Cosby Show. A New Orleans Noel, starring Tim Reid and Patti LaBelle, showcases some of the holiday traditions of African-American families in the Crescent City.
“Oftentimes [traditional holiday] movies won’t culturally reflect who we are as African-American people, and we have a culture that’s all our own and specific to us,” Knight Pulliam said during a virtual press event for the movie before it premiered on December 3. “Seeing that … opens up windows to people to show what’s possible and opens up windows to empower people. When you start from a real and authentic place, you can’t go wrong.”
Hallmark Channel’s Christmas at the Golden Dragon — in which a beloved Chinese restaurant closes on Christmas Eve, forcing patrons and workers to reevaluate the importance of family and friends around the holidays — showcases the holiday season from the perspective of its Taiwanese writer/producer Emily Ting. Ting said the story is based on her family’s desire to experience a traditional Christmas after coming to the U.S. from Taiwan.
“I had such high expectations only to realize that, sometimes, eating Chinese takeout with your family on Christmas is all you need to celebrate the holidays,” Ting said.
Hallmark executive VP of programming Lisa Hamilton Daly said movies like Christmas at the Golden Dragon and the Asian-American themed A Big Fat Family Christmas help the network attract a more diverse audience by allowing storytellers to tell stories that are familiar to one segment of the audience while exposing different traditions to others. Also on Hallmark’s holiday movie list is The Holiday Stocking, produced by Hallmark’s African-American targeted Mahogany content production brand.
Holidays Are for Everyone
“On the most basic level, the holiday season is for everybody,” Daly said. “We really want to make sure that we are including the broadest range of holiday traditions and people that we can. As we get better at this, we’re seeing bigger and broader audiences.”
UP Entertainment VP of content strategy and acquisition Hector
Campos said that the network has seen an early ratings bump for UPtv’s lineup of 17 original Christmas-themed films — seven of which feature diverse lead characters.
“It’s important to us that our audience sees themselves reflected authentically on the screen, and we have actors from all backgrounds in starring roles,” Campos said. “Through our second week of Christmas premieres the response from viewers so far has been great.”
TV analyst Marc Berman said the popularity of holiday-themed movies is only enhanced by providing original movies targeting diverse groups, which has the benefit of delivering new viewers and advertisers.
“We live in a diversified world, and as a distributor you need to show the world as it is,” Berman said. “There’s been a lot of discussion about the lack of diversity in media, and these outlets are beginning to understand that if they don’t represent the world as it is, their brands are going to ultimately pay the price. Advertisers realize that they have to represent brands that represent the world, and I think these outlets realize that, whether it’s scripted dramas or holiday movies.” ■
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R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.
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