Even those who don't necessarily celebrate Christmas can happily invest a couple of hours watching movies in which everyone ice skates and drinks hot cocoa and the leads fall in love and presumably live happily ever after. When times are tough, Christmas movies are the great escape. For far too long, however, they were the great white escape.
This year, the standard bearers in Christmas movies, Hallmark and Lifetime, made concerted efforts to be more inclusive. OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, however, did not need to change course to show diversity. Sure, OWN movies follow the established Christmas movie formula -- to a point. The difference with them is the Black actress is not just the wise best friend. She is the star.
"This is a slate we have been interested in developing for quite some time," said OWN President Tina Perry (pictured at top). "Last year was our first year. We talk to our viewers a lot. We learned from them that holiday movies are something they love, and we try to make content relatable to their lives. They were not seeing enough movies accurately reflecting their lives and traditions."
For the next three Tuesdays on OWN, they will. First up on December 8 is A Christmas for Mary. December 15 brings Cooking Up Christmas, and First Christmas premieres on December 22.
Last year, the three OWN Christmas movies reached 17 million unique viewers, Perry noted, and ranked among the top six of holiday movies on cable.
"Everyone loves good old holiday magic, love stories, and family coming together," she explained. "Our movies are deeply rooted in family and love."
Beginning with A Christmas for Mary, those values are on vivid display. Vivica A. Fox (pictured above), Jackée Harry and Morgan Dixon star in the story of a journalist (Dixon) who looks into her family’s past while working on a holiday project and discovers a beautiful love story that happens to be perfect for her assignment. Fox plays a tough magazine editor.
In Cooking up Christmas, an MLB player is worried about holding onto his career and his life. Lamman Rucker (Greenleaf) plays Donovan Jackson, a widower raising his three children. He’s a great athlete and a great dad but is so strictly disciplined he unintentionally can suck the joy out of a holiday. Enter Chloe (Meagan Holder, pictured above with Rucker), an innovative chef who knows how to put some joy into everything.
"We all know that sports and African-American contributions are a part of our history and culture, so it was fun to create a movie about a professional athlete raising his kids," Perry said.
Sure, we expect Donovan and Chloe to fall in love -- after all, this is a Christmas movie -- but there are wonderful details that make this an OWN movie. While Donovan keeps his children on a military-like schedule – enforcing workouts, monitoring what they eat -- he forgets to relax a little. He’s convinced that should a grain of sugar pass their lips, something awful will happen.
Chloe, though, knows her way around a kitchen and figures out healthy versions of Southern classics. She provides warmth, common sense and delicious food, which looks incredibly appetizing. Perry shared that the recipes used in this were from the family of Angela Burt-Murray, who wrote the script. That dollop of authenticity seasons it just right.
A dose of reality is also woven into First Christmas, in which the foster system is a critical plot point. Author Halle (Idara Victor, pictured above, left, with Tonea Stewart) has hit the dreaded writer's block and could be let go from her book deal -- a popular series shecreated -- if she doesn't produce. Yet Halle, who grew up bouncing around foster homes, takes a chance and visits with family she never knew.
"First Christmas explores important subject matter in our community," Perry noted. "[With Halle] meeting her biological family for the first time, we knew we were getting the core our viewers would relate to.
"Entertainment, a lot of times, can glamorize family and make it seem like a seamless experience for everyone," she continued. "If you didn't have that and don't have it, you are in this world of dysfunction. And that's not it at all. This girl found her path and journey in the foster care system and it was a very successful one."
OWN's Christmas movies, like the others, leave us happier and more hopeful.
"What makes our movies stand out is we put our audience’s culture at the center," Perry concluded. "But we have that holiday fun that's been around for some time. We want to bring joy to our viewers' lives and their families this season. We all know what a challenging time this has been for everybody. I think we are all looking forward to next year, but we want to celebrate the holiday season and give people a moment of what they can be thankful for this year and bring joy to their lives."
A Christmas for Mary premieres December 8 at 9 p.m. Cooking Up Christmas will be telecast on December 15 at 9 p.m. First Christmas is scheduled for December 22 at 9 p.m.
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