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Originally published Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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African-American family films finding big audiences

The most satisfying movie in theaters right now features no elaborate computer-generated special effects and no talking polar bears. It doesn't star any...

Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The most satisfying movie in theaters right now features no elaborate computer-generated special effects and no talking polar bears. It doesn't star any scenery-chewing actors gunning for an Oscar. And — thank heaven for small favors — it doesn't have six people playing Bob Dylan at various stages of his career.

Instead, Preston A. Whitmore's surprise hit "This Christmas" — which opened last month and has grossed more than $40 million — tells the story of a large and bickering African-American family reunited for the first time in four years for the Christmas holiday. What makes the movie so refreshing is its unabashed old-fashioned sensibility. In this age of newer, bigger, better and louder, Whitmore has offered up a kind of minirevolution, with a plainspoken, warmhearted comedy-drama about recognizable people overcoming everyday problems.

"I wasn't surprised at all that it opened so well," Whitmore says. "Look at the social landscape: We have a war, there's less money, gas prices are astronomical. People want things that make them feel good."

But here's the really exciting thing: "This Christmas" is just one of a number of accomplished, affecting African-American-centered films we've seen recently. Earlier this year, the writer-director-actor Tyler Perry served up his two most accomplished movies yet: "Daddy's Little Girls," about the budding relationship between a working-class mechanic (Idris Elba) and a wealthy lawyer (Gabrielle Union); and "Why Did I Get Married?," a study of three young couples falling into and out of love. "The Perfect Holiday," is a slight but charming screwball fairy tale about a wealthy single mother (Union, again) who falls for a struggling songwriter (Morris Chestnut) who lies to her about his true identity.

These movies are all modest and funny. They reckon with universal issues of faith, adultery, money and love. Best of all: They don't feel the need to remind us, at every step of the way, of their own singular importance. (Witness just about every third movie that's opened this year, from "Zodiac" to "I'm Not There" to "American Gangster" to "Atonement.") By trying to capture and reflect the lives of African-American families on screen, these directors have achieved something unexpected: They've served up movies that far transcend boundaries of class and race, and that hearken back to the glorious and simple pleasures of Hollywood's Golden Age.

"More often than not, the Hollywood studios are behind the curve of what audiences actually want to see," says Narcel Reedus, assistant professor of film at University of Texas at Arlington. "They're still caught in the 'New Jack City' era, with movies that have a lot of rap music and violence. ... Or they rely on the sort of minstrel-show comedies that we typically see starring African-American performers.

"But occasionally the audience will say, 'I don't want to see that anymore. I want to see 'Why Don't I Get Married?' And it's not just a black audience, either."

Credit Tyler Perry

Indeed, if you ask anyone to explain why we're seeing a burst of family dramas with primarily African-American casts, it won't take long before Perry is cited as a hugely influential force. The Atlanta-based playwright and drag performer shocked everyone when his first film, "Madea's Family Reunion," opened atop the box office in February 2005. Since then, Perry has served up three more titles, all of which have earned considerably more than their modest budgets.

"There was no outlet for this type of entertainment," says Whitmore, who says his own movie was green-lit only because of the success of Perry's. "He put it into place. He proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that there's an audience for these kinds of movies."

"It's the changing face of America — people want to see themselves reflected a little more," Union says. As a writer and director, Perry probably isn't going to be confused with Martin Scorsese (or, for that matter, Spike Lee) anytime soon: His fondness for soap-opera-style plotting, didactic speechifying and contrived happy endings has been widely noted. But he's also reintroduced important elements into contemporary movies — things that are increasingly absent in our postmodern culture.

For one thing, he shows us characters who are religious and for whom faith is a regular part of their lives — a stark contrast to most Hollywood movies, which bend over backward to offend no one. For another, Perry is an old-school showman, a man who has little use for irony and hipsterism, and instead just wants to make you laugh, make you cry and send you home with a lump in your throat.

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These very same qualities are gratifyingly on display in "This Christmas." The characters feel lived-in and human — people you might encounter on your next trip to the Tom Thumb. (Indeed, this is the first holiday movie in ages where the characters actually go to church on Christmas Day.) When the proceedings stop cold so that the wonderful Chris Brown — who plays the youngest member of this family — can belt out a ballad, you're too busy exulting in the music to care that the scene makes little sense in the larger context of the story.

Will the trend end?

So are we witnessing a renaissance in African-American filmmaking — or is this just another passing trend, likely to fade into oblivion as soon as the next Tyler Perry or Preston Whitmore movie fails to perform at the box office?

Depends on who you ask.

"Unfortunately, in the African-American-cinema world, if in fact one thing is successful, they make 10 of them," says UTA's Reedus. "And that's what burns out the audience. Right now everyone is looking for something like 'This Christmas,' whereas they should be probing other African-American stories."

Union, however, takes umbrage at the question. "I think it's kind of like asking Steven Spielberg if people are going to get bored with seeing his movies," she says. "People have been making black-centered movies for a long, long time. As long as there are people of color, I don't think it will ever go out of style."

Whatever direction black filmmaking heads next, a few things are certain: These movies are providing a terrific platform for a new generation of African-American talent, including Union, Brown, Regina King and Columbus Short; and they're reminding us that, whatever the color of our skin, our concerns in life usually tend to be pretty similar.

Best of all (especially after a fall season filled with turgid, dreary efforts like "Lions for Lambs," "In the Valley of Elah" and "Margot at the Wedding"): These movies are making it a joy to go to the multiplex again.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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