David E. Talbert is uninterested in taking cinematic chestnuts such as “A Christmas Carol” and exchanging white characters for Black ones and just calling it a holiday.
The director and writer of Netflix’s smash musical “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” intended from the get-go to whip up a bona-fide original, a Broadwayesque showstopper hoofing to become an annual tradition for underrepresented Black families, as well as for all families.
The former Berkeley resident achieves that with a timeless fable set in fanciful Cobbletown, a snowy, magical Victorian-era wonderland where a science-loving granddaughter (Madalen Mills) reinvigorates her grandfather (Forest Whitaker) to reignite his creative spark, doused by an invention-stealing assistant (Keegan-Michael Key). Along the way to getting gramps’ cred back, an abundance of catchy songs, briskly choreographed dance setpieces and, of course, heartwarming moments go down as smoothly as eggnog.
Talbert, an award-winning playwright, director and novelist, had this particular vision dancing in his head for more than two decades. But it wasn’t until his son Elias noticed that holiday films Talbert regaled him with — such as one of his childhood faves, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — didn’t reflect back the faces that looked like his.
“He saw no one on the screen who looked like him,” Talbert recalls. Others in his life, including his producer wife, Lyn Sisson-Talbert, noticed, too, and sought to upgrade a holiday movie tradition.
“We sit down every holiday season as a people of color, and we have families and we have great food, and we turn on the television, and there’s nothing for us to watch with anyone of color,” Talbert says.
Talbert’s son’s observation along with Netflix’s desire to release entertainment more representative of the streaming service’s global audience paved the way to “Jingle Jangle” getting the green light.
After pitching the idea to Netflix executive Scott Stuber and talking about the lack of representation in holiday films, Talbert recalls, getting back the response: “We need to do something about that.”
While there have been stage and film versions that swap in Black characters in exchange for white ones, Talbert wants to follow a less-traveled creative path.
“I think as admirable as it is putting a Black girl in ‘Annie’ and as honorable as it is to put a Black girl in ‘The Little Mermaid,’ we — as a community — want our own stories, our own original characters,” Talbert says.
“We don’t want the ‘Black version of ….’ Years ago people used to say, it’s the Black ‘Ocean’s 11.’ It’s the black ‘9 to 5.’ It’s the ‘Black blah blah.’ No. Let’s do an original story where we can create our own mythology, our own heroes, our own characters that will join the canon.”
Talbert has certainly brought diversity to that canon: on the stage, in the cineplex and at the bookstore.
The 54-year-old Washington, D.C., native a notable East Bay fixture early in his career.
“That was my old stomping grounds,” he says of Berkeley, adding that he misses Rasputin Music on Telegraph Avenue and the shuttered Blondie’s Pizza.
While in the Bay Area, Talbert was not only a DJ at San Francisco-based KSOL, but also wrote and had his first theater piece — “Tellin’ It Like It ‘Tiz” — performed at Berkeley’s Black Repertory Group Theater. He was moved to write it after seeing a production in Oakland’s glorious Paramount Theatre.
“Someone gave me tickets to the Paramount, and that changed everything, when I saw the audience there,” he recalls. “I had such a great time, and I said: ‘I could do this.’ I went home and started writing my first play. Of course, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
That might well be modesty talking since a promoter saw his play, which had an 18-show sellout, and then took it on tour. The offers poured in soon afterwards, and Talbert, who has received a staggering 18 NAACP Award nominations, went on to write the play “Love in the Nick of Tyme” as well as a slew of others, including his latest “What My Husband Doesn’t Know,” with Morris Chestnut appearing in the lead.
Talbert branched out into directing, producing and writing movies from there. His 2008 cinematic debut, “First Sunday” with Ice Cube, Tracy Morgan and Katt Williams, might not have scored with critics but did respectable box-office business. He also adapted one of his novels, “Baggage Claim,” for the movies in 2013 and later dipped into holiday cheer with the 2016 hit “Almost Christmas” starring the Bay Area’s Danny Glover; Gabrielle Union, who grew up in the Bay Area; and Oscar winner Mo’Nique.
For now, he’s on a publicity blitz promoting “Jingle Jangle” and cooking up plans to bring the musical to the Broadway stage, once Broadway reopens.
Talbert says he draws much of his inspiration from church, which showed him early on how to deliver the emotional goods. His mother was a pastor.
“There’s no better theater than growing up in the Black church,” he says. “And that theater is a beautiful theater. I watched how the words (my mom) spoke changed people’s lives. I saw what words did and the power they have when woven together. That’s why I fell in love with words and how they would touch people.”
Talbert hopes to continue to inspire families and encourage children to imagine the impossible, something that wasn’t as supported when he was a kid, given the diet of films that nourished him.
“It didn’t occur to me that I was watching a white or black movie. I was just watching a great movie that piqued my imagination,” he says in reference to “Mary Poppins,” “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” and so on. “But I do remember that when I was going to the mall over the holidays with my mother, that every little white kid that I saw I thought could fly.”
That was unimaginable for him, since Talbert never saw anyone who looked like him in those films.
The importance of flying came back while filming “Jingle Jangle” and creating Buddy 3000, a cute robot, for the film. He showed his son early drawings of the character.
“He said ‘Daddy, I love it. What can he do?’ I said: ‘He can do everything: He can walk. He can talk.’ And he says: ‘Can he fly?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, he can fly.’ And he lit up and said to me: ‘Daddy, can I fly?’”
Talbert pauses for a long time, then repeats: “‘Daddy, can I fly?’”
“And that’s why we have to have movies of inclusion because everyone needs to know that they can fly. Every child needs to know they can fly.”