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‘Best Man Holiday,’ ‘Black Nativity’ and ‘Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas’ Join Banner Year for Black Filmmakers

'Best Man Holiday,' 'Black Nativity' and 'Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas' Join Banner Year for Black Filmmakers

Joining what is proving to be a
banner year for movies by black filmmakers 
including “12 Years a Slave,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “Fruitvale Station”: Three films with yuletide
themes and settings timed to the holiday
season.

All come bearing plots that center
on family and friends as well as source material that is already familiar to much of their
target audiences. Where they differ is in tone and MPAA rating — the better to
spread the cheer among all ages.

“The Best Man Holiday,” which opened
to a strong  $30.6 million and nearly
beat “Thor: The Dark World” in its second week, is an R-rated reunion of old
friends that were first introduced in 1999’s comedy “The Best Man.” Since that
time, the careers of such cast members 
as Terrence Howard, Morris Chestnut, Taye Diggs, Harold Perrineau Jr.,
Regina Hall, Sanaa Latham, Nia Long and Taye Diggs have taken off.

Even up against a record-smashing
juggernaut like “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” this weekend, “The Best Man
Holiday” worked its counterprogramming magic, pulling in an estimated sturdy
$12.5 million — good enough for third place behind “Thor” again — for a total
$50.4 million. 

“The reason for bringing everyone
back could have been anything,” says Malcolm D. Lee, the writer and director of
both “Best Man” films. “I had an idea in my head and had been writing down notes
since 2005. Christmas seemed the perfect
event since holidays are a time for reflection, looking at the year ahead and
making resolutions.”

“Black Nativity,” opening this
Wednesday to take advantage of Thanksgiving, is an uplifting PG-rated musical. It expands upon Langston Hughes’ 1961
off-Broadway version of the birth of Jesus, and has become a holiday staple — seen by about 250,000 people each
year — with a Harlem-based tale of how a reverend’s broken family learns
to heal its past grievances.

Writer-director Kasi Lemmons (“Eve’s
Bayou”) has gathered a stellar cast headlined by Jennifer Hudson (in her first
tune-filled movie since “Dreamgirls”), Forest Whitaker and Angela Bassett .
Joining them are such musical acts as Nas, Tyrese, Mary J. Blige (as a platinum
Afro-sporting angel) and teen newcomer Jacob Latimore. Noted R&B producer Raphael Saadiq  took charge of the soundtrack, which features
gospel  standards such as “Rise Up,” “Shepherd,” and “Follow” along with new songs including Hudson’s tearful  ballad, “Test of Faith.”

Producer Celine Rattray says while
the music is a major attraction, the family’s situation will touch many. “People are really moved by this emotional story,“ she says. “It’s coming out at a challenging period when there’s  a lot of emotional issues, and the film is
about putting those differences aside. Many say it reminds them of their
childhood. It has a lovely message.“

Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas,” opening Dec. 13, has the benefit of 
already having a loyal fan base as part of a long-running franchise that centers on Perry’s
cross-dressing performance as a gruffly outrageous old lady. The average gross
of the seven previous movies that feature Madea hovers at an impressive $60
million.

A request for an
interview from someone associated with the movie  was turned down — not surprisingly, since
Perry’s releases generally sell themselves. However, in the  press notes issued by distributor Lionsgate,
the filmmaker is quoted as saying,  “I’ve always wanted to do a holiday movie! I love Christmas and
the spirit of the holidays. I love the family gatherings. And I
think Madea paired with the holidays spells just the right kind of
trouble.  Cause there’s nothing holy about Madea.”

In her latest escapade, rated
PG-13, Madea accompanies niece Eileen (Anna Maria Horsford) when she visits her
daughter, Lacy(Tika Sumpter),  for the
holidays. A culture clash erupts when they discover Lacy has a secret: She has
married a white man and his hillbilly parents (Kathy Najimy, Larry the Cable
Guy) are joining their seasonal celebration. As Perry promises, “There’s no
Silent Night for this family.”

“The Best Man Holiday” exceeded box-office
predictions last weekend — taking in almost what the original film made during
its entire run. “The studio thought it would make under $20 million,” says Paul
Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for Rentrak. “I thought $25 million. It
helped that it had a great release date, tucked between ‘Thor’ and ‘The Hunger Games:
Catching Fire.’”

What is surprising is that it did
so well by being niche-marketed mainly to older black females. According to
Universal, 87% of the first weekend audience was African-American, 75% female
and 63% over 35. Says studio
distribution chief Nikki Rocco, “It was a discerning adult audience that has
been underserved, the same moviegoers who went to ‘The Butler’ and ‘The Help.’”

The lesson learned, says
Dergarabedian: “You don’t need to cross over to be a hit. The ‘Twilight’ movies
proved that by appealing to young females. You just need to grab the biggest
fans of a brand or theme or genre to have a hit. ”

However, the two other Christmas
movies might have the potential to
expand that reach. Perry has been diversifying his casts for a while. And while “Black Nativity” features African-American actors in the main roles, its leads
have proven their wide appeal to
audiences of every type in the past.

Plus, all three
titles boast a secret weapon. Unlike most mainstream Christmas-themed movies such
as “Elf” or “The Santa Clause” that tend to stick with the secular, these filmmakers have made addressing faith-based themes a
priority. That could attract a crowd that would appreciate hearing a few
hallelujahs along with the same old ho,
ho, ho’s.

A number of reviews complimented “The Best Man Holiday” for acknowledging religion onscreen. “First of all, it is
a huge part of a lot of African-Americans’ lives, even if not all of us go to
church on Sunday,” Lee says. “A lot of people like Harper (a writer played by
Diggs) struggle with faith. I’m not a
religious person, but I am spiritual and believe in God. I knew I had to bring
it in. “

Of course, the one drawback to any
holiday-themed release, Rocco says: “They do not do well once New Year’s
happens.”

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joe

Slow news day.

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