The Netflix musical "Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey" is the rare Christmas story set in the Victorian era to feature a primarily Black cast.
Justin Cornwell and Forest Whitaker co-star as a toymaker and inventor named Jeronicus (Cornwell plays the younger Jeronicus to Whitaker's older character). Jeronicus is a charismatic whirl of energy who tends to ignore the feelings of others. If that reminds you of someone, that's fine by Cornwell, who made his starring debut in the 2017 TV series "Training Day,"
"My favorite No. 1 movie of all time is the original 'Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory' with Gene Wilder," he said. "And on set [writer/director David E. Talbert] was like, 'Think Gene Wilder — give me more Gene.' He knew that I knew the shorthand for the Gene-isms in that movie, and while I don't think either Forest or I are trying to do a Gene Wilder impression, we're trying to find that little bit of that unbalance. There's a little bit of madness in the genius."
Cornwell hopes people see beyond the atypical casting.
"We were all saying, 'We're trying to make a Christmas classic for everyone that just happens to have us, Black people, leading it.' Just like all those Christmas classics I grew up with. And then, when I think about it, I almost forget, 'Oh, we weren't in those movies.' But I was able to bridge that gap to the emotions, and it was never about this kid doesn't look like me, it was about that love and that feeling and family and possibility that you got from these movies.
"I don't want to say it, but I feel like there's a stereotype of, if it's Black there's this perception that it has almost a simplistic quality, or they're given less of a budget, where you feel the quality of the art is somehow diminished. And I had a conversation with David about that, and he wanted to throw that stereotype out the window.
"We really need to change the language when it comes to us and Hollywood because I think that will allow us to speak about Black art with more agency."
Not that unusual
Most viewers probably have never seen a holiday story that centers on Blacks in Victorian England. But that doesn't mean that they weren't part of the milieu.
"There were large Black populations in Victorian England, even dating a hundred years before that," Cornwell said. "It's just weird that you never saw us in those narratives. We've been here. And it's not an affront to anyone's idea of what their history is, but I think we should acknowledge that Black people's presence was real in all of these stories. And this narrative is seeing us through our eyes."
After graduating from college, Cornwell was hired by Chicago Shakespeare. But he never got beyond being an understudy, a situation he found frustrating. "They were like, 'We need understudies we can rely on.' And that makes complete sense. But I'm hoping to advance."
That chance came with "Training Day." "I remember walking into the table read [after he was hired] and on my phone getting an offer for another understudy job at Chicago Shakespeare, and I thought, 'Well, you know (long laugh), I think maybe I should do this instead.' "