By Nsenga K. Burton (portions of this post originally appeared on The Root)
1. Roots: The Gift (1988)
Roots: The Gift is the third installment in the Roots series, the films based on Alex Haley’s seminal book tracing his mother’s ancestry back to the African continent. In this movie set in 1775, Avery Brooks stars as Cletus, a black Northerner who has been working with a network to free slaves. Kunta Kinte (LaVar Burton) and Fiddler (Louis Gossett Jr.) learn of Cletus while accompanying their owner to the Reynolds plantation at Christmas time.
Cletus is captured by bounty hunters and asks Kunta and Fiddler to help the escaping slaves. Fiddler is scared but Kunta has faith that he can help. After Cletus is punished, Fiddler changes his mind and joins Kunta in his quest to give the slaves the most important gift of all — freedom.
This remake of the classic 1947 film The Bishop’s Wife, set in New York City, stars Courtney B. Vance, Gregory Hines, Whitney Houston and Denzel Washington. Rev. Henry Biggs (Vance) is struggling to keep his church going, fighting off Joe Hamilton (Hines) a predatory real estate mogul who is attempting to buy the church so that he can build luxury condominiums. Rev. Biggs’ wife, Julia (Whitney Houston), feels neglected because of his focus on the church and the community. For help, he prays to God, who sends Dudley (Washington), an angel, to help Biggs sort out his life.
Dudley’s mission becomes complicated when he realizes that he’s falling for Julia. If watching Houston, who passed away earlier this year, is too much, too soon, for you, then check out the soundtrack, which is the best-selling gospel album of all time.
Devout Muslim Tariq (Evan Ross) struggles with his religious identity while attending college in the U.S. following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His mother Safiyah (Nia Long) also struggles with the religion, protecting her son and standing up to Tariq’s devout Muslim father Hassan (Roger Guenveur Smith), whose deference to his faith comes with major consequences. Danny Glover stars as Dean Francis, a brother who is more invested in staying in power at the college while Professor Jamal (Dorian Missick) attempts to be advocate and referential point for Tariq and Muslim students at the school.
4. Santa and Pete (1999)
Each year around the Christmas holiday, stories are reported about the controversy erupting over Black Peet (Zwarte Piet), a smiling black helper in Netherlands folklore who accompanies Santa as he delivers gifts. Stereotypical representations of blacks in pop culture aren’t necessarily earth-shattering, but the Dutch dressing up in blackface to celebrate the black “helper” from Spain who ensures a rich Christmas in 2012 under the guise of tradition can be pretty offensive.
In Santa and Pete, the only thing that Black Peet and the character Pete (Flex Alexander) have in common is the fact that the storyline is based loosely on the Dutch Christmas tale. The late, great Hume Cronyn plays Sr. Nick, a bishop known for spreading the word of peace and brotherhood throughout the Old World. The Spanish government thinks he is a spy and has him arrested. Pete, a cook, decides to risk life and limb to help free Sr. Nick so that the bishop can continue to spread his message to the world. Narrated by James Earl Jones, who also stars as Grandpa Nicholas in the New World, this tale is one take on how Pete became one of Santa’s most controversial yet beloved helpers.
Amid a culture that is hostile toward Muslims, independent filmmaker Sultan Sharrief brings us his coming-of-age story that shows a more nuanced image of Islam. The film is based on Sharrief’s own struggle growing up in a Muslim household with real and imagined responsibilities while trying to be true to himself and his desire for a better life through a college education.
Bilal, a Muslim high school senior in Detroit, works long hours to keep up both his grades and his family’s taxi stand. “The Stand” has been the family’s social and financial hub for 60 years, and now Bilal must carry the torch, especially after the death of his father and uncle. Bilal secretly submits a college application wanting to carve out his place in the world and havoc ensues. He must decide whether to be true to himself or his family steeped in faith that calls on him to do something else.
6. Christmas in Compton (2011)
Big Earl (Keith David), the owner of a Christmas tree lot in Compton, and a man with a big heart and a big vision, demands success from everyone around him. All kinds of trouble erupts the week before Christmas when his son, Derrick (Omar Gooding), part-time music producer and part-time Christmas tree lot employee, crosses the line to prove to Big Earl that he is a success.
The colorful characters who populate the tree lot cause additional complications for Derrick as he tries to solve his problems secretly. Things spiral out of Derrick’s control, jeopardizing the survival of the lot, and more importantly, the relationship with his father. The film also stars Sheryl Lee Ralph, Eric Roberts and Miguel Nunez.
7. Fat Albert’s Christmas Special (1977)
Hey, hey, hey. It’s Fat Albert and the gang in a cross between The Grinch Who Stole Christmas and No Room at the Inn. This time, the Cosby kids are rehearsing for a Christmas play at the junkyard clubhouse when Mr. Tyrone, who owns the property, interrupts them with a threat to bulldoze their hangout spot in order to make room for another building. If that’s not enough stress for Albert, Mushmouth and Rudy, a little boy named Marshall shows up with his father and very pregnant mother, who have nowhere to live. Fat Albert and the gang work to change Mr. Tyrone’s hardened heart and make room at their inn in order to welcome a new baby into the world.
The holidays are a wonderful time for sharing, caring, giving, receiving — and family drama. This Christmas is no exception, following the shenanigans of the Whitfield clan. The matriarch of the clan is Ma’Dere (Loretta Devine), a mother desperate to hang on to her family as they make their way in the world. Idris Elba stars as Quentin Whitfield, a traveling jazz musician indebted to thugs, who has come home for Christmas for the first time in years. Sharon Leal plays Kelly, the daughter who has hang-ups about not going to college, but lands Malcolm (Laz Alonso), a self-absorbed businessman, nonetheless. Chris Brown stars as Baby, the youngest of the clan, who, to the chagrin of his mother, has dreams of singing superstardom.
Add to the mix Joe, (Delroy Lindo) Ma’Dere’s longtime, on-again, off-again boyfriend. You have a family drama that suffers under the usual Christmas movie clichés but offers strong performances by an all-star black cast.
With all of the hoopla surrounding why Chris Tucker won’t be appearing in the next Friday installment, now is the perfect time to revisit the franchise. Why not start with Friday After Next,which follows cousins Craig (Ice Cube) and Day-Day (Mike Epps) as they try to grow up, having moved out of their parents’ homes.
A rogue Santa (played by comedian Rickey Smiley) robs the cousins of their rent money and stereo equipment. The cousins become security guards at the local strip mall to raise rent money and have some cash to buy Christmas presents. Add to the mix John Witherspoon (Craig’s father) and Don D.C. Curry (Day-Day’s dad) as owners of the barbeque pit the cousins must protect while tracking down the rogue Santa, plus an appearance by comedian Katt Williams as Money Mike and you’ve got the gift of laughter.
This Christmas romantic comedy stars our favorite movie couple, Gabrielle Union and Morris Chestnut. Emily (Khail Bryant) wants the department store Santa — and aspiring singer and office supply clerk — (Morris Chestnut) to find a husband for her single mother, Nancy (Gabrielle Union). Like many mothers, Nancy has been putting the needs of her three children ahead of her own to such an extent that even a child can see that her mother deserves more out of life. Nancy’s only wish for Christmas is to receive a compliment from a man. Emily’s request really touches Santa, as she is willing to forgo a gift for herself so that her mother can be happy, and he sets into motion a plan to make sure that mother and child have the perfect holiday.
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