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Cinema in Focus: ‘This Christmas’

Family dynamic comes to a head — and to a reconciliation — at Christmas.

4 Stars — Encouraging

Our relationships within our families are complex. We are not only stuck with the family into which we were born, and we are not only formed by our place within that family system, but we are also privileged to have a group of people who accept us and love us as we are. In families where honesty and unconditional love are present there is a healing power at work in our lives. That is the message of writer and director Preston A. Whitmore II‘s film on a family’s reunion at Christmas entitled This Christmas.

Similar to Mi Familia, in which we walk with a Hispanic family through a lifetime of joys and sorrows in East Los Angeles, this film allows us to enter into an African-American family as it experiences the successes, disappointments and pressures of living the American dream. With a daughter who graduated from Harvard and a son who graduated from Princeton, the family questions the younger sister’s new boyfriend for having chosen the all-black, all-male Morehouse College, the alma mater of Martin Luther King Jr. His answer gives insight into the unique experience and values of African-Americans who do not want to compromise to be a part of the mainstream.

Using the setting of a holiday in which to explore the history and relationships of the Whitfield family, we realize it is a family with a troubled past, a spiritual center and an accepting bond. The intuitive matriarch of the clan has the affectionate name Ma’Dere (Loretta Devine). Ma’Dere has six grown children with the youngest nicknamed "Baby," Michael "Baby" Whitfield (Chris Brown) still lives at home in a huge house with plenty of bedrooms. Also present in the home is Ma’Dere’s long-time boyfriend, Joseph Black (Delroy Lindo), whose prayer at the dinner table is one of the most authentic Christian prayers presented in any film.

A deacon at their church, Joe Black is a man of patience as shown by his faithful love for this woman who is not free internally or familially to marry him. The reason is a core issue within the family. Years ago, the love of Ma’Dere’s life and the father of her children left her to pursue his passion of music. This abandonment has left a hole in her heart and a scar on her soul such that she forbids her children to explore their own musical talents.

Although different in every family, there is often a deep wound within a parent that becomes a taboo or, at the other extreme, a requirement in the lives of children. As such a wound bleeds through the veins of the family, the struggle to find one’s own life becomes a conflicted, though necessary, task. For some, it has an impact on their own marriages, for others it shapes their choices of careers, and for still others, it impairs their respect for authority. But in all of them there is healing needed. It is no coincidence that the final healing of the film occurs within the Christmas Day worship service of the family’s church as grace and courage join in a celebration of new life both for individuals and the family as a whole.

This Christmas is a compelling tale of family life in which most of us can identify our own lives. It is an adult story for families to discuss together this Christmas.

Discussion:
The love that Ma’Dere has for the father of her children is expressed in part by her understanding that he had to pursue his passion of music. What would you have done if you were her? If you were her husband?

The role of each child within the film, from first born male Quentin (Idris Elba), who fought against Joe Black for taking his father’s place in her life, to firstborn female Lisa (Regina King), who stayed to help operate the family dry-cleaning business, to the beautiful Harvard-educated Kelli (Sharon Leal), who is pursuing her own career, to the rebellious Claude (Columbus Short), who ignores the rules of the Marines and marries without the family’s knowledge, to the love-hungry Melanie (Lauren London), who changes majors to reflect each of her boyfriends, to Michael "Baby," who lacks the courage to tell Ma’Dere his dreams, we see how each child lives out his or her place within the dynamics of the family. With whom do you most identify? Why?

One of the interesting things on the film’s official Web site is a quiz that can be taken to show which role we fill within our own family of origin. If you take the quiz which child are you identified with? Were you surprised? Why or why not?

In films, the inclusion of the religious faith of the characters is more often seen in African-American or Hispanic persons and families than in white families. Yet white families in America are as likely to be faithful Christians as are these two groups. Why do you think that white Americans’ faith is not often portrayed, especially in a positive light?

Cinema In Focus is a social and spiritual movie commentary. Hal Conklin is a former mayor of Santa Barbara and Denny Wayman is pastor of Free Methodist Church  on the Mesa. For more reviews, visit www.cinemainfocus.com.

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