Black folk have a lot of needs to laugh. Big laughs. Little laughs. The kinds of laughs that shake your soul and embarrass your girlfriend in the theater (yes, speaking from experience). Laughter is the salve that lays over the wounds of generations, the tie that bonds when everything else makes no sense. That’s probably why, every year, we get an ensemble movie like Almost Christmas.
Though we talk a lot about blackness not being monolithic, there are many shared experiences that tie The Culture together. One of these many things is the direct lived experience, or at best the facsimile, of big family gatherings, especially during the holidays. From the drama to the heartwarming moments, sometimes the blackest thing black folks can do is come together. Maybe that’s why films that depict this experience often connect so well with us.
Which brings me to this: to really understand and appreciate Almost Christmas, I’d be wrong as hell not to mention that this trope is best exemplified by the damn near hallowed film, Soul Food. Without Soul Food, the “black holiday film” genre wouldn’t be the cottage industry it is today. Fight me.
First off, this is important because, in the slew of films since Soul Food, Almost Christmas copies the basic beats to a tee without overstepping its boundaries too much. It’s the cinematic equivalent of bringing your own, much smaller, pot of greens to Thanksgiving, even though your one auntie who cooks everything said she was bringing them too. It’s a respectful gesture, but it’s also you looking to build upon the history in the room (or subvert it entirely if your auntie can’t cook for shit.)
Secondly, this is important because I really don’t have to explain much about this film in terms of the plot. You know it already: elder family member invites everyone home for Christmas, shenanigans happen and there’s a heartfelt lesson learned by the end credits.
What makes Almost Christmas unique in 2016 is that it doesn’t miss any advancements of the past couple decades (yes, you read that right. Soul Food is about to be 20 years old). For instance, the kids are often busy instagramming/snapchatting and texting their family’s shenanigans to each other. This makes for some amazing moments, like when *that one scene* with Keri Hilson from the trailer occurs, the kids are scooted out the room. However, instead of giving up, they use FaceTime to tune into the foolery. There are a few moments like this, and they’re all fun without being kitschy.
Besides the kids and newcomer, the central players aren’t anything new. From Danny Glover to Gabrielle Union, most of this cast is no stranger to the black movie circuit. And it’s a good thing too: they all have a familial chemistry that doesn’t feel forced. Except for Omar Epps. He is the best plot device ever. That also means that he doesn’t get to enjoy being a 3D character like nearly everyone else. But hey, this is a holiday movie! If you’re worried about the existential nature of Epps’ character, you’re missing the point.
If you pardon that digression: this familial chemistry leads to tons of heartwarming moments and even more comedy. Aunt May (Mo’Nique) in particular is a standout, with Cheryl’s (Kimberly Elise) husband, Lonnie (JB Smoove) running close second. For instance, the argument that arises from Lonnie smothering Aunt May in fire retardant, which ruins her ‘Chaka Khan’ wig, is belly-laugh worthy. Similarly, Lonnie’s continuous name-dropping of his times in the European basketball league is the classic shit that only your one uncle who DJ’ed once for El Debarge could cook up. This isn’t to say that the other players don’t hold their own here. But more often than not, the film wraps itself around the comedy erupting from these two.
But what about the movie itself? What is the point, exactly? Almost Christmas covers a full range of topics, from gentrification, to grief, to generational divides, to the question of how exactly to maintain family traditions when a key player is lost. If we look at these conversations holistically, we’re left with this general understanding that “family is as family does,” and “family should because family is important.”
While I may or may not be quoting an unnamed black proverb there, the point remains: when all else fails, in the world and beyond, the black family unit and the bonds it engenders are all we have. So we must protect them and nurture them. In Almost Christmas’ world, this means working within a raucous, large family with real-ass moments — some as big and raucous as discovering infidelity at the dinner table, and some as small and insidious as the loss of a sweet potato pie recipe.
Many of us aren’t as fortunate (unfortunate?) to be playing with such stakes, and with so many family members in a traditional sense. But I think Almost Christmas doesn’t necessarily aim to browbeat the viewer about it. Rather, it presents its narrative and says: “Hey, this is a family you can understand.” That open-handed approach, despite some hiccups, allows you to project, and no family holiday is complete without a good amount of projection.
This is doubly true of black holiday films: we want to be a part of this world. For even if they’re completely messy, their world has rules — every tragedy has meaning and there is almost always a happier ending. Lessons are learned, people are unmade and rebuilt, and there’s always a glass of wine and some warm pie leftover.
It may sound overly perfect. And, well, it is? Holiday films are arbitrary worlds where endings must be happy and understandable. And black holiday films are no different. Almost Christmas and its siblings give us the much-needed vacations from black realities, where there is so much unpredictability and danger that daily life is skressful, breh. They distill our truths and hopes into a fantasy that’s perfect for projection, nostalgia and more.
Simple and formulaic, these films evoke the warm feelings we often need to get through year after year. And I think that when we buy our tickets and share a moment in darkness, away from the harsh outside world, that’s all we really ask for: a familiar, parallel reality where everything makes sense for once.
Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following: IG | Twitter