David E. Talbert, Director of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, has written and directed a delightful musical with more black and brown faces than you typically see in a movie of its type. Talbert’s son inspired him to write the film after they started to watch one of his childhood favorites, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Let’s just say his son wasn’t feeling it.
“My son is looking at me like, what is wrong with this dude? And he asked if he could get up and play with his Legos? I said you don’t like the movie? He says, ‘mmmm.’ And as he walked away, I looked at him, and I looked at that screen. I’m like, oh, on his wall, he has Miles Morales and Black Panther. And that’s when it occurred to me. He didn’t do it because he didn’t see anybody that looked like him on that screen,” said Talbert.
That’s when Talbert approached Netflix about what happened with his son and the fact that there aren’t any holiday musical options with a majority of people of color. Scott Stuber, the head of original films at Netflix, agreed with him and decided they had to do something about it. So they did.
Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey follows legendary toymaker Jeronicus Jangle (Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker) whose fanciful inventions burst with whimsy and wonder. But when his trusted apprentice (Emmy winner Keegan-Michael Key) steals his most prized creation, it’s up to his equally bright and inventive granddaughter (newcomer Madalen Mills) — and a long-forgotten invention — to heal old wounds and reawaken the magic within.
Urban Faith talked with Talbert about his movie, its nods to the Black church, and advice he’d give to aspiring filmmakers of color.
David E. Talbert, Director of Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey, on Magic Man G and the influence of African American culture and music.
It’s impressive that Netflix was so receptive to your Christmas movie vision as I’ve heard that Black filmmakers struggle with getting blockbuster-type movies made.
Well, we do, but you know, before Black Lives Matter, and the racial and political unrest, and the pandemic, there was a wave and a Renaissance that was happening. And you know, from Get Out that Jordan Peele did — you know, Black people never lived past five minutes in a horror movie. They paid us by the minute. But Jordan Peele broke the mold with that. And then Ryan Kyle Coogler with Black Panther. You can’t watch a Marvel movie unless you see, God rest his soul, Chadwick Boseman, his character, or the general or the little sister, you’ve gotta see them in those worlds now. And so those films normalized people, representation, and genres. And that’s what this film is doing, too. It’s normalizing people of color in worlds of wonder. And I think this Renaissance is happening, and Netflix knew that they were ahead of the curve. They knew that we not only wanted it as a Black community, but the world wants it, too. We’re number one in 23 countries worldwide, and we’re in the top 10 films in 70 countries around the world.
You’ve spoken about the nods to the Black Church in your movie. Did you grow up in the Black Church?
My great grandmother was one of the founding pastors of the Pentecostal movement in DC. — Pastor Annie Mae Woods. I grew up in a storefront church, three generations of holiness preachers I was raised under. And you know, I watched the Word of God change people’s lives. And just words moved people to tears, to reconciliation, to reform. In addition to that, there’s no better theater than the Black church. I mean, watching the sisters shout and then somebody tried to touch their purse, and they stopped mid-shout to get their purse. But it was a community full of heart and warmth and love and messaging, and meaning that moved me as a kid and stays with me as an adult.
How did those experiences shape you as a director?
Well, you write what you know. You write stories and pieces of stories you’re inspired by, that you grew up with. I mean, Jeronicus Jangle is the journey of Job. He had everything, lost everything, and he got everything back. He lost his faith, he lost his belief, he questioned God, he questioned himself, he’s like all of that. But it was a path, it was his journey to get back to what he had, and even more so. I’m not a religious person at all. I’m a proud member of bedside Baptist. But I’m spiritual. I’m not about religion; I’m about relationship more. But these things are in me. These are my part of my DNA. And so, I never do my art to preach to anybody, but the themes or lessons of morality will always be in there because that’s who I am.
Share more about the symbolism of Black culture and the Black Church in the movie.
The background dancers were the Pips in the Temptations, and the Four Tops and the Dramatics, and all those groups are grown men dancing and choreographed movement that we love. And with “Magic Man G,” that’s the Black church. I mean the shout music in there. It was like New Orleans. But that’s shout music up in Magic Man G. And then the emotion of this day and a spirit. And, you know, all of that is entrenched in African American music, soul music, music from the continent. In the snowball scene, that’s an artist from Ghana, Bisa Kdei. So, we just want to celebrate our music that we love, but that’s universal. The world loves our music. And so, I wasn’t shy about doing what moves me—and growing up in a Black church, this is the music that moved me.
What advice would you give for future filmmakers of color?
That all is possible, and don’t put yourself in a box. Don’t let anybody else put you in a box. You know, my grandmother told the story of what they did when she was growing up. She said that they took grasshoppers that used to jump six feet high into the air and put them in an old jelly jar. They would poke holes in the jelly jar and put a grasshopper in there. When they took the grasshopper out the next day, the grasshopper only jumped six inches because that’s all the room they had. The grasshopper then who could jump to the sky had been taught that he could only jump this high. And she told me that to say never forget how high you were created to soar. As artists and inventors and innovators, we can soar to the sky. Don’t let people put you in that jelly jar, poke holes in it, and then teach you that you can only soar six inches.