I’ve always taken some level of comfort in the holiday season. Wrapping gifts, decorating the tree, queuing up the holiday classics on the radio. There’s a repetition of the holidays and their associated festivities that I’ve always taken comfort in as a queer kid of color growing up. A welcomed pomp and circumstance to bookend any year, no matter how challenging or depressing. Over the years, I craved the kind of holiday cheer that could look and feel like me and the spaces that I occupied.
You don’t have to look too deeply to understand that Christmas and its pop culture breadcrumbs have historically been dominated by whiteness. The benchmarks of the holiday season are usually found in “A Christmas Story” marathons, Bing Crosby ditties, and Charlie Brown.
Unbeknownst to most, an update on a classic was about to disrupt any antiquated, albeit comfortable, ideas of what constitutes a “classic” Christmas. The one driving a bulldozer through the most wonderful time of the year would be a crass, Black, bisexual, singing superstar with a pill problem and set of enemies ready to take her down. Her name is Ebony Scrooge.
The VH1 made-for-television film “A Diva’s Christmas Carol,” written/directed by Richard Schenkman debuted on December 13, 2000 and in the years since its debut would generate a loyal fanbase of viewers. The powers that be, having yet to see its underground following, leave viewers no choice but to pull out their DVD players every year, hope for a midnight cable viewing, or search through YouTube to satisfy the desire for this Christmas gem.
Here’s a glimpse into how Ebony flips Christmas on its head.
1. A Fabulous Spin on an Old Favorite
The film reimagines the classic Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in a universe of late 90s era diva-dom. The iconic Ebenezer Scrooge is retooled as Ebony Scrooge, a Black pop/R&B princess with massive success but little love in her heart. One fateful night alongside some oddball spirits has her questioning her cold ways just in time for Christmas. Produced for television by VH1, it arrived right at the peak of its massively popular VH1 Divas Live series.
2. Starring THE Vanessa Williams
VH1 founds its Ebony Scrooge in Vanessa Williams. An acclaimed singer and actress, Williams was no stranger to success at the time. By the film’s release, she had five hit albums under her belt and more than a dozen Hot 100 entries to her name. Nor was she a stranger to Christmas, having released a popular holiday album in 1996. With hit movies and Broadway on her resume as well, there was no better choice to bring this Scrooge to life.
3. The Bitch is Back
Williams is no holds barred in her take on the classic Scrooge character. She vacillates between complete apathy and all-out bitchiness and finds every delightful opportunity in between to ham it up for the camera. In fact, Williams’ Ebony Scrooge caught the eye of the late Silvio Horta who campaigned to have her fill the role of another grand dame – Wilhelmina Slater on the hit show “Ugly Betty.”
4. No Shortage of Camp
Completely aware of its own ridiculousness and in on its own fun, “A Diva’s Christmas Carol” ups the camp and embeds clever one-liners and mounds of witty banter into its script. When Ebony comes face to face with her dead former friend and bandmate Marli Jacobs, the two spar in true Dynasty fashion about whether Jacobs is there to do her nails or warn her of her evil ways. Chock full of pop culture references, the film pokes fun at Celine Dion, Mariah Carey, Bette Midler, and even a hilarious revelation of a tryst between Ebony and Anne Heche.
5. Oh, the Fashions!
Moving across decades, the film anchors itself primarily in the 80s and 90s. So, for viewers, there’s quite the visual treat watching Williams and company play dress up in all the feathers, leather, fur and big hair that a boy playing dress up in his mother’s closet could ever dream of.
6. Wildcard Supporting Cast
Add into this already delicious mix an utterly strange combination of supporting actors. Ebony’s bandmate Marli is played by Rozanda “Chilli” Thomas of TLC who appears in full on over-the-top dominatrix gear. Follow that with ghosts of Christmas past (a snarky Kathy Griffin), present (John Taylor of Duran Duran) and future (a literal episode of VH1’s Behind the Music – how’s that for a throwback?). Then toss in some cameos from Nile Rodgers and Brian McKnight for good measure.
7. Do I Feel a Heartquake?
For the icing on the cake, “A Diva’s Christmas Carol” is responsible for birthing one of the greatest fake 80s, holiday-adjacent, catchy AF songs by a non-existent girl group to ever come out of a television movie. Before striking solo, Ebony, Marli, and their friend Terry form the group Desire and hit big with their single “Heartquake.” The film weaves this pop gem throughout and I don’t know anyone that’s denied themselves the opportunity to hum along.
At its core though, the message living inside its protagonist’s messiness still rings true. “A Diva’s Christmas” never goes too far into the deep end of its own dramatics before pulling back to remind us of its heart. It pushes us to find some meaning in the holiday season – that same corny, comfy feeling that makes me excited for the month of December each year – and allows us to imagine our own festive worlds where the hair reaches the heavens, the gowns cling tight, and divas reign supreme.
Joshua Henry Jenkins makes space and cultivates community. His work primarily focuses on amplifying the voices of those who are often living in the margins. Joshua is a digital strategist by profession, a designer and facilitator in the in-between, and a community organizer through and through. He currently serves as Director of Web and New Media at Americans for the Arts, Board Chair of the Arts Administrators of Color Network, and co-creator/co-facilitator of the BLACK, GAY, stuck at home series. www.joshuahenryjenkins.com