New Faces, Same Holiday Formula
Snow is neatly settled on the grass, houses are decorated in colourful lights, and attractive people fail to realize true love is staring them in the face. This can only mean holiday romantic comedy season is in full swing, that magical time of year where millions of viewers sit in front of their televisions to indulge in the deliciously cheesy dishes that only Hallmark, Lifetime and Netflix can whip up. These are movies where a woman’s big city career achievements mean little when compared to her small town roots, and prince charming is not found in the accomplished doctors or wealthy business men, but rather the blue-collar guy with a good heart.
They are essentially Tyler Perry films minus the heavy melodrama.
After several years of online backlash over the lack of inclusion, we are seeing a record number of holiday romance movies featuring greater diversity where people of colour are in the leading roles and not just the token best friend who talks their white friend off the crazy ledge.
I am not quite ready to breakout the champagne flutes in celebration just yet.
It is great that studios like Hallmark are finally realizing that there are boatloads of untapped money to unspool like tinsel by simply incorporating wider representation. However, the number of holiday movies featuring people of colour are still minor drops in a vast white ocean. Furthermore, as we see in two highly touted movies, Netflix’s The Holiday Calendar and Hallmark’s Christmas Everlasting, while the faces might be changing the indestructible cookie cutter winning formula remains the same.
In The Holiday Calendar, Abby (Kat Graham) is a talented photographer who is hoping to take her career in a new direction. When Abby receives an antique holiday advent calendar from her grandfather (Luke Cage’s Ron Cephas Jones), just as friend and fellow photographer Josh (Quincy Brown) returns to town, things begin looking up for her. This is no ordinary calendar though, each day during advent the calendar opens on its own and reveals a toy that will impact Abby’s life in some way.
As fate would have it, Abby starts to notice that the items all seem to coincide with her encounters with Ty Walker (future Spock Ethan Peck), a handsome single-father and doctor who is the most coveted bachelor in town. Of course, as any one familiar with the genre can tell you, the pathway to bliss is not through the Ty, who would check off all the right boxes in any other universe.
Seriously, he is a loving father, seemingly treats her with respect, takes her on magical date and donates time to the homeless, though sinister motives are implied regarding to the latter.
Instead, the film inexplicable attempts to make a case for alleged ladies man Josh, whose biggest virtue is that he has know the “real Abby” for years. This conveniently overlooks the fact that bland Josh is the type of guy who bafflingly equates being stood up at the movies with accidentally erasing Abby’s photos, thus getting her fired and potentially killing an important career opportunity, as equal footing. Yep, he’s a real winner.
Fortunately, Christmas Everlasting’s protagonist Lucy (Tatyana Ali) does not have to choose between two suitors as, once again, the long-time friend is the clear and only choice presented. However, she is not immune from the second popular trope of the genre, the choice between her new big city job or the joy that only small town life can offer.
On the night she makes Junior Associate Partner at her New York law firm, Lucy finds out that her older sister Alice has passed away. Lucy and Alice were inseparable when they were younger, but things changed after Alice was involved in a car accident and had to spend the rest of her life living with a disability. In an infuriating example of the ableism that is often runs rampant in these films, one never quite understands the extend of Alice’s disability, as the flashback scenes only focus on when she was just a “normal” young woman.
Returning home to Nilson’s Bay, Wisconsin to settle Alice’s estate, Lucy must confront her guilt from the past and learn more about the sister who she thought she knew. Of course, the journey home also leads to reuniting with her old high school love Peter (Dondre Whitfield), who just happens to be Alice’s lawyer.
While any cast that features Dennis Haysbert and Patti Labelle in supporting roles is worthy of celebration, it takes a lot to get past the fact that the film uses Alice’s death to preach values of friendship and tradition, while conveniently never actually showing how people can live fulfilling lives with a disability.
The Holiday Calendar and Christmas Everlasting may not be groundbreaking films by any means – although fans of the genre will gobble them up with ferocity – but they do prove a point. They show that it is possible to incorporate people of colour in a positive light while still adhering to proven formulas. If the purpose of these films is to sell a universal tales of love, while not so subtly reinforcing sanitized Christian values, then it is important to show just how diverse the world really is.