This Christmas: Riding the 'Sooooouul Train!'

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(photo courtesy Sony Pictures/Screen Gems)

The week before Thanksgiving I had a fun talk with Will Packer, Atlanta-based co-founder of Rainforest Films and one of the producers of the enjoyable holiday film This Christmas. Back in 2002, I profiled Packer and his collaborator, director Rob Hardy, for a Creative Loafing feature story when they were up-and-coming talents on the Atlanta film scene. Six-and-a-half years later, Packer magnanimously said the story helped put Rainforest Films on the map.

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I was only able to include a portion of our conversation in our Holiday Guide. One of the things I asked him was whether there’d ever been a major African-American Christmas movie before -- I certainly couldn’t think of one. Packer said, “There hasn’t been a holiday movie about a black family on this level and scale before This Christmas. It’s about time, you know? But we wanted to make it relatable to any family. Even if you made the family in the film colorless, anyone could identify with them, like The Family Stone last year. They’re just as dysfunctional, just as messed up, just as loving as any other family.”

Two of This Christmas’s most exuberant scenes, however, capture a uniquely African-American tradition. “At an African-American family, when everyone gets together, we’re going to dance. The film has a ‘Soul Train’ line, where people go down one at a time. We had it written in the script, and the execs at Sony didn’t know what it was. When they saw it on the set, they said ‘Wow, that is really freakin’ cool!’ So they suggested we do it again over the closing credits, with everyone dancing out of character. That ended up being one of our test audience’s favorite scenes, so we put the whole thing before the credits, sort of like a curtain call.” The photo above features singer Chris Brown.

Packer even volunteered something I noticed during the film, but forgot to include in my list of questions. “People have asked, ‘Where’s Jessie Stroup in that scene? Why didn’t you put the film’s one white character in it?’ See, Jessie can get down, but the dance was kind of a spontaneous decision, and she was in New York at the time we shot it. We didn’t mean to leave her out.”

The subject of Tyler Perry’s films didn’t come up in our chat, although This Christmas clearly aims at the same demographic and touches on similar themes of church-going spirituality, workaholism and abusive marriages: Regina King’s character wreaks satisfying vengeance on her tyrannical, materialistic husband. The difference, though, is that This Christmas proves more accomplished than Perry’s movies. Director Preston Whitmore not only shows a stronger command of the vocabulary of film, he brings out more comfortable, persuasive performances, particularly from Idris Elba, Regina King, Delroy Lindo and their remarkably attractive co-stars. With filmmakers such as Will Packer around, Tyler Perry, you'd better watch out.

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