LOS ANGELES — Time was when Christmas movies were as reliably white as a North Pole winter.
It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street came to define the American cultural psyche during the holidays for decades. Later came the Home Alone franchise, 1994's The Santa Clause and 2003's Elf.
But at the end of a banner year for black cinema, three new holiday movies written and directed by black filmmakers present an alternative vision to moviedom's traditional white Christmas.
On Friday, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas arrives in theaters, with Hollywood's pre-eminent black movie kingpin, writer-director-star Perry, in drag as his gun-toting grandmother alter ego Madea.
Already in theaters, Black Nativity, costarring Oscar winners Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker, is an unabashed feel-good adaptation of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes' widely staged 1961 gospel play, which chronicles the birth of Christ with black performers and traditional spirituals.
The movie that started the season is The Best Man Holiday, a pre-Thanksgiving release plotted around the Christmas reunion of an upwardly mobile group of friends and exes, which took in more than $30 million its opening weekend and has grossed an impressive $67.6 million worldwide.
For Malcolm D. Lee, The Best Man Holiday's writer-director, three movies aiming for the intersection of holiday togetherness and black experience this year represents a mixed blessing.
"Three black Christmas movies within six weeks of each other makes it a bit nerve-wracking," says Lee, who made his sequel to 1999's The Best Man for just $17 million. "But they're all so different. Best Man Holiday is a comedy-drama. Madea's Christmas is definitely a comedy. And (Black Nativity) is more like a Les Misérables-type of movie, a musical. That's what's great about the spectrum of African-American fare this year. There's a nice diversity of choices for audiences."
There also has been diversity in the films' marketing plans: a Sex and the City-styled promo push for The Best Man Holiday, a Harlem Renaissance pedigree for Black Nativity and marquee identification with a hit movie series for A Madea Christmas. Just as there's not a monolithic black audience, this season's offerings show that there's not one formula for black holiday movies.
Zola Mashariki, who rose through the ranks at Fox Searchlight Films to become the studio's senior vice president of production and co-founded the African Grove Institute for the Arts with playwright August Wilson, says the sudden boom in black Christmas films is emblematic of a larger shift. The films of 2013 have effectively banished Hollywood's accepted logic that black movies have to be set in an "urban" milieu to connect with audiences.
This year's unprecedented number of African-American movies, filmmakers and performers considered strong contenders in the annual Oscars derby, and the range of black holiday films, including two with broad commercial appeal, show that studios at least understand that there's money and prestige to be gained in movies with black casts and filmmakers.
"The holidays are a time when we want to be with family and experience movies we associate with feelings of warmth and togetherness," says Black Nativity writer-director Kasi Lemmons. "You want something that everyone is going to take something from. I think that's the real appeal."