- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Every year the studios try to move another film into the column of perennial holiday viewing — nearly always to disastrous results. For every “It’s a Wonderful Life” there is an “Ernest Saves Christmas” or “Jingle All the Way.” The last “Christmas classic” to enter the canon, arguably, was the Griswold laugh fest “Christmas Vacation” in 1989.

And what of Thanksgiving? Other than “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” and “Home for the Holidays,” the food-oriented final Thursday in November has barely ever been tackled on film.

Director David E. Talbert, a District native, is aiming to change that, and he believes that his new film, “Almost Christmas,” opening Friday, will be the one to do so.

“When I went to sell the movie, [Universal] said they were looking for a holiday classic, not a ‘black holiday classic,’” Mr. Talbert told The Washington Times of his new film, which stars Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, Omar Epps, Oscar-winner Mo’Nique and J.B. Smoove. “With African-American casts, there aren’t that many to choose form, but my bar was I wanted to do something as classic and iconic as ‘Soul Food.’”

“Almost Christmas” centers on a family gathering for its first Thanksgiving since the matron died. Mr. Glover, as Walter, is the patriarch of the group, trying to pick up after the family’s loss. The fun of dysfunctional humor ensues.

Actress Keri Hilson rounds out the acting ensemble as Jasmine.

“I loved the dinner scene,” Miss Hilson said of the crucial crux of the narrative. “I just sat there watching all this [acting] greatness form in front of me. Danny Glover is to my left, Gabrielle Union is in front of me, Mo’Nique is down the table.

“I was just a sponge,” Miss Hilson said of the ensemble moment. “That was my favorite scene.”

Miss Hilson said that, much like her fictional family, she will gather with many relatives in her native Atlanta for the annual big meal on Nov. 24.

“It’s not as big as when my grandmother was here, because she would extend the invite,” Miss Hilson said, adding this year there will be “maybe about 10, 12 of us … trying to emulate my grandmother’s dishes.”

“It’s usually like 50, 60 people there,” Mr. Talbert said of his “modest” plans for his Los Angeles Thanksgiving. “Actors away from their families come there all day and all night, and then we go to the piano and everyone sings.”

Mr. Talbert recalls how, when away filming “Almost Christmas” last Thanksgiving, people nonetheless came at the home he shares with his wife.

“People still showed up at our day with some food,” he said.

Mr. Talbert spent time as a youth in Capital Heights and Silver Spring, Maryland. He recalled how his childhood was defined by going to the Washington Coliseum, a former sports venue in Northeast that now houses and REI store. He then went 30 miles north to attend Morgan State University, a historically black college in Baltimore.

“Two weeks after I graduated, I moved out to the Bay Area,” Mr. Talbert said. “So I don’t know D.C. as an adult. I’m kind of like a visitor when I come here.”

Mr. Talbert is pleased that those in decision-making capacities in Hollywood are becoming more diverse — a process he said that began even before “Almost Christmas” was given the go-ahead.

“Things don’t change overnight,” he said, pointing to the #OscarsSoWhite campaign earlier this year in counterpoint to the Emmy Awards rewarding Courtney B. Vance and Sterling K. Brown for their roles in much-lauded “The People v. O.J. Simpson” miniseries.

“I think diversity is happening [but] I don’t think it’s happening as fast as we want it to be happening,” Mr. Talbert said. “I see that there are original projects happening now that would not have been happening a year or two ago.

“I’m inspired. I’m encouraged. I think, as a storyteller, someone who is behind the camera not only directing but writing, I can tell more diverse stories like this one,” Mr. Talbert said of his film. “I think doors are opening, opportunities are presenting themselves. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re nowhere near where we used to be.”

Mr. Talbert hopes that audiences will take away from “Almost Christmas” that every family is unique, and every family has its problems.

“As different as we think all families are, we’re pretty much the same,” he said. “Emotional, crazy, but at the end of the day, we’re better off. “Whoever you are, you’re going to see yourself or some family member that you know.”

And what of the comparison to “Soul Food,” the 1997 ensemble film that Mr. Talbert said was a forerunner to “Almost Christmas“?

“One of the biggest compliments that I got was Babyface came to see the movie … and I asked him ‘Is it as good as “Soul Food”’?” Mr. Talbert said. “He said, ‘Oh man, I think you got “Soul Food.”’”

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