Netflix Revitalized the Corny Christmas Special With Black Joy
We have finally achieved Christmas classic status with ‘Jingle Jangle’ and ‘Dance Dreams’
For a long time, Lifetime and Hallmark Christmas films were a last frontier for us. With Kelly Rowland, Holly Robinson Peete, Keshia Knight Pulliam, Kat Graham, and Amber Stevens West helming a bunch of them this season, that’s no longer the case. What’s been even more elusive, however, is the quintessential Black Christmas classic. Through the soul-singing, fantasy pop of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey to the entertaining documentary Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, Netflix puts up a mirror to this enduring reality, underscoring — especially with the latter — why Black Christmas classics matter.
The Shondaland-produced Dance Dreams is a glimpse into the kind of culture-shifting work Black people have always done in the shadows. Although we know Debbie Allen as the woman who taught us that Fame costs and put historically Black colleges and universities into our beloved A Different World, dance is her foundation. Through her Los Angeles-based Debbie Allen Dance Academy, now in its milestone 20th year, Allen passes that love on. Her annual holiday production of Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is a testament to that. Allen’s creation is a holiday dance extravaganza that stands alongside or, depending on your vantage, even surpasses The Nutcracker, mainstream dance’s holiday standard.
Allen, the daughter of a dentist and a poet, came of age in the 1950s in Houston, the urban South. Growing up in the dance world, Allen says there are certain holiday productions dancers look forward to. “There’s Swan Lake, and there’s Cinderella. And there’s The Nutcracker,” she tells ZORA via phone. “And, traditionally, when you were my age at 12, you didn’t see an image of yourself anywhere on the stage. You didn’t see yourself. You always wanted to be there. You wanted to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. You wanted to be, you know, a Chinese dancer or a flower or whatever, but it was rare. So I have been in the world of changing some of these images.”
From working with The Kennedy Center for over 20 years, overseeing various dance productions to creating books for children of color, Allen, who will turn 71 in January, has certainly put the work in. “I’ve been in this world and in the mindset of creating that in which our young people can see themselves,” she says. “When I started having children, it became more obvious that I had to really do more.”
And done more she has.
“It’s so worthy to do this story of The Nutcracker, which belongs to the world, and make it into something else,” she explains. “You know Duke Ellington did a Harlem Nutcracker; there’s another Chocolate Nutcracker. There’s a few versions, but this one became more of a musical theater production because I took the idea of the Mouse King (the villain in the original The Nutcracker) and turned it into three rats that actually navigate us through the story.
“And these rats are kind of like the Three Stooges, but the young people get to go to Thailand and go to Bollywood and go to the land of blues and jazz, you know, Egypt,” she continues. “They go to places with music that is original. So it’s something when those kids sit in the audience, and they see the Black fairy queen come flying across that stage, you hear an ‘awww’ over the whole audience that is everything. When they see those boys dancing ‘Candy Cane,’ that big hip-hop number that the girls are always trying to get in, but I don’t let them, [the kids in the audience] stand and cheer for that number for two minutes. So, it’s important that we see the world through a lens that is inclusive.”
We can create our own, and they can be classic too.
Playwright-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter and director David E. Talbert (The Fabric of a Man, Baggage Claim) discovered the urgency of that “lens of inclusiveness” to children for himself through his own son. During the Jingle Jangle virtual roundtable with the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA), Talbert, joined by his wife and creative partner Lyn Sisson-Talbert, shared a glimpse of the film’s 20-year-plus journey to the screen.
When Talbert conceived the fantasy adventure odyssey of inventor and toymaker Jeronicus Jangle, played by Forest Whitaker back in 1997, Broadway seemed to be its likely home. His son’s complete disinterest in watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, a childhood holiday favorite of Talbert’s, about four years ago changed his mind on where Jingle Jangle would live.
“I looked at the screen,” he recalls. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, he can’t relate to it.’ He is looking at his father like, ‘Why is this big Black man singing the happiest, whitest song ever when he has Miles Morales and Black Panther on his wall?’ So it occurred to me there that, at four years old, he wanted to see someone that looks like him on that screen, or he wasn’t that into it because he has options now that I didn’t have when I was growing up.”
Jingle Jangle’s very setup conjures Allen’s mantra of “creating that in which our young people can see themselves.” And, arguably, nothing is more enduring than a Christmas tale. From the very moment that Grandma (Phylicia Rashad and Allen’s older sister) begins sharing the epic tale of Jeronicus Jangle, an inventor and toymaker again played by Whitaker, instead of The Night Before Christmas with her granddaughter and grandson, Jingle Jangle (which is produced by John Legend) claims its place as a tradition, a classic, to be passed down. What ensues is a vibrant production with eye-catching costumes, talking toys, catchy songs, bouncy dance numbers, outstanding performances, and all the trappings of a Christmas classic but with one amazing nuance — Black people at its core.
Like Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, which riffs off The Nutcracker, Jingle Jangle echoes stories of Christmas past but is an original story that stands on its own merit. And that’s what Sisson-Talbert hopes will spark a trend.
“We have so many stories to tell, so many images to show, so much creativity that we want to create some of our own stories or original stories,” she says. “We don’t always have to do a Black version.”
Instead, we can create our own, and they can be classic too.
Dance Dreams and Jingle Jangle are playing now on Netflix.