A few weeks ago a heavy, midsize hardcover book arrived in the mail from Turner Classic Movies titled "Christmas in the Movies: 30 Classics to Celebrate the Season."
The table of contents reveals selections from the 1940s you'd expect to see on the TCM schedule this time of year — "Holiday Inn," "Meet Me in St. Louis" and more. But the list also includes movies of a more recent vintage — "A Christmas Story," "Gremlins," "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" and "Love Actually" among them.
"This book presents 30 of the best and most intriguing English-language holiday movies — beloved classics, under-the-radar gems and a few familiar titles you may not have considered for their yuletide slants," author Jeremy Arnold writes in the intro, adding that "for all their differences, they share some interesting patterns and similarities."
True. Here's a pattern and similarity that jumps out immediately: Nearly all the films highlighted in the book center on white people.
And it's an odd decision by both Arnold and TCM.
All lists of this kind are subjective. And the book's first entry does include 1939's "Miracle on Main Street," which takes place in L.A.'s Old Spanish Quarter during Christmas (starring the Mexican-born actress Margo, who went by the single-name moniker) and was filmed in English as well as Spanish, the latter under the title "El milagro de la calle mayor." Another entry, "3 Godfathers" (from 1948) is something of a Three Wise Men story dropped into a Western setting with Arizona cattle rustlers, one of whom is played by Mexican-American actor Pedro Armendariz. And yes, "Die Hard" does feature Reginald VelJohnson as LAPD Sgt. Al Powell as John McClane's man on the ground, and Chiwetel Ejiofor shows up in "Love Actually" as a newlywed who might just lose his wife to his best friend.
Still, it takes work (or bias, deliberate or otherwise) to compile a list of 30 movies without any that focus primarily on a cast of characters who are people of color.
'The Preacher's Wife'
Which means you'll find "The Bishop's Wife" from 1947 with Loretta Young and Cary Grant spotlighted. But the book provides no information about "The Preacher's Wife," the 1996 gospel remake starring Whitney Houston as a church choir director who is quietly frustrated with her neglectful spouse, played by Courtney B. Vance as a preacher in need of a spiritual pick-me-up. Their marriage is fraying and a delightfully charming Denzel Washington (whose production company developed the film) is the fedora-wearing angel in a dove-gray suit sent down to offer a bit of help.
It's sweet and funny and knowing. Maybe occasionally too cute in spots. That's true of most holiday movies. It was directed by Penny Marshall, who died Dec. 17, and you see her instinct for comedic grace notes all over the place. One of the first things Washington's angel does with his time on Earth is indulge in a bit of street food. The image most associated with the movie is Houston in her long twirly skirt and Washington in his overcoat skating together on a pond — a retro and deliberately subversive throwback echoing the costumes and skating of the original film, but specifically centering on black people enjoying a classic wintry diversion.
There's something so wonderfully comforting about watching "The Preacher's Wife" each year. Any movie that spotlights Houston's singing this much is worth your time — and it comes with a dash of Jenifer Lewis flair, as Houston's mother, who has a way with one-liners. She has a killer voice, as well, which we hear briefly as she sets the holiday dinner table, a cigarette dangling hilariously from one hand. Also: Gregory Hines! Lionel Richie! Loretta Devine!
Writing for the Cut, Allison P. Davis digs up an old promotional video that features interviews with the cast and Marshall herself, who, as Davis notes, "demonstrates the care she took — as a white director hired to make a gospel-centric remake of a movie, starring the biggest black stars of the day — to understand what was so special about the film. She just got it, and knew when to let the magic happen."
'Nothing Like the Holidays'
There are so many other holiday movies worth checking out each year — 2006's "Last Holiday," 2013's "The Best Man Holiday," 2016's "Almost Christmas" to name a few.
This is also the 10th anniversary of the Chicago-shot "Nothing Like the Holidays," a family reunion movie starring Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena as the Rodriguez parents and John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez and Vanessa Ferlito as their adult children. Their Puerto Rican heritage is threaded throughout the story, as is their connection to Humboldt Park itself, a longtime Puerto Rican neighborhood on the city's West Side.
Leguizamo plays the eldest sibling, a lawyer visiting from New York with his wife (Debra Messing), Rodriguez is a military veteran back from a traumatic tour of duty and Ferlito is a struggling actor trying to make it in L.A. No one is particularly happy with their lives and one of the best scenes finds the three siblings escaping to the attic and reconnecting as they take swigs from a flask and give each other a hard time. Meanwhile downstairs, their parents' marriage is on the verge of a breakdown.
When the movie came out in theaters, reviews often compared it to "The Family Stone" and "Home for the Holidays" — essentially dismissing it as a Latinx version, as if stories of white family reunions and cacophonous dinners are the default. I think there would be a different kind of conversation about the film if it were released today.
When I reached out to the film's director, Alfredo de Villa, he noted that "sometimes the script was hitting tropes that those movies hit and I was like: OK, this is almost like a genre exercise. We're going to get there but it would be interesting to find a different way. I wanted to do a ton of research in terms of what life is like in this neighborhood. I asked the location scout to get me in as many homes as I could, so I was visiting homes and talking to people about their lives. And Chicago homes in the city, they're small! So that affects people in different ways."
The film (produced by "The Hate U Give's" Bob Teitel) also stars Luis Guzman and future "Magnum P.I." Jay Hernandez. And for a split-second you can catch a glimpse of Tanya Saracho — now the creator and showrunner of the Starz series "Vida" — as the flirtatious Sister Maria, a character so charismatic in just that tiny moment of screen time that she deserves her own story line.
The film's strength is the easy chemistry among the cast — which de Villa said was the result of carving out rehearsal time. "I knew the shoot was going to be five weeks, so when we were casting I said they have to give us six weeks of their life — meaning, they have to live in Chicago and they can't leave during the shoot. The first week was going to be nothing but rehearsals. And we really just ran it like a play that first week. That's very unusual, especially nowadays, nobody would have approved it. Literally now you just show up, say hi and then the camera is rolling."
Occasionally the studio would ask for changes.
"But I knew if I could get the actors behind me, we could band together and push back. It's easy for the studio to tell the director, 'Shut up and go to work.'
"But when it's the star of the movie pushing back, it's a little harder. For example, they wanted some of the comedy to be broader. Specifically Elizabeth Pena's character, they wanted her to be very sassy. And we had something different in mind. We found a different way of approaching that character and [Pena] honestly just modeled her on her aunt. We wanted to keep it rooted as much as possible in reality."
De Villa and Pena stood their ground, and the performance is all the better for it.