Jingle Jangle and the Power of Representation

Gareth Gatrell/NETFLIX

With Christmas Day fast approaching, families near and far are pulling out their favorite movies. Whether it be the very first Christmas film you recall watching, the Christmas film that makes you laugh yourself into a stomachache, or the Christmas movie that always gets you a little teary eyed, holiday cinema is a large part of how we celebrate the Christmas season. Although many prefer to stick to the classics they grew up on, every once in a while a new film comes along that changes the game.

Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey

Playwright David E. Talbert has done just that with his newest musical film, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey. This Netflix Original has become very popular among Christmas lovers, young and old. It begins with a Grandmother, played by Phylicia Rashad, reading a Christmas story to her grandchildren. The story she reads is about Jeronicus Jangle, a talented inventor. Set in the Victorian Era, the film follows the journey of a man who loses everything, including his belief in himself and the power of the creative mind. But with the help of his granddaughter Journey and his young apprentice Edison, Jeronicus begins to believe again. As a result, the film is heartwarming and mesmerizing to watch. But for many Black viewers it is much deeper than just another Christmas movie. 

Black Representation in Film

In Hollywood, the fight for more Black representation continues. Of course films that represent Black people exist, but all too often they depict us as drug dealers, absent parents, and slaves. Films that show Black people in a positive light are few and far between. Thus, the significance of David Talbert’s new film is that it is not a Black Christmas story, but a Christmas story that happens to star Black people. The difference is small but important. It is vital for Blacks to see stories about themselves that depict the totality of their lives, particularly showcasing conflict derived from places other than the color of their skin.

When the protagonist of the story, Jeronicus, played by Forest Whitaker, sings of his trials it is not because he is a Black man, but because he is a man that has experienced loss. Although the story does not focus on race, the power of the movie rests in the characters unapologetic portrayal of who they are. For example, the Black women wear their hair in natural styles not tucking or hiding it away to fit the typical Eurocentric standard of Victorian beauty.

In addition, throughout the film there is an array of complexions represented. Ranging from the beautiful golden skin of Journey to the beautiful ebony skin of her late grandmother, every Black woman in the movie proudly flaunts their features in every tight curl and broad nose. Even when wearing the typical Victorian clothing appropriate for that era, if you watch closely, underneath you will spot Kente cloth. From casting down to the details of costuming you see that Black culture is holistically celebrated and not hidden.

A Celebration of Blackness

In celebrating the cultural beauty of every character, Jingle Jangle suspended the overwhelming reality of persons of color viewing their skin as a curse or burden to bear. From the very first musical number, you hear the grandiosity of Broadway but also the incorporation of runs that can only be heard in the Black Church. A little bit of black culture was tucked into every scene. Even some of the phrases and sayings used African American Vernacular English. The songs were so majestic, it was almost chilling. The actors let their voices sound as big and loud as they possibly could, with no remorse whatsoever.

Journey and Jeronicus | Gareth Gatrell/Netflix

There was one scene in particular where all the children began to break out into a traditional African dance during a musical number. It was almost an emotional experience to see children, Black and White alike, participating in African dances as if it was a common occurrence in their town. Dancing is a big part of global Black African culture. It is beautiful and culture shifting to present it so casually.

The Story of Black Inventors 

One of the incredible things about this Christmas film is its depiction of Black inventors. There was no unexplainable force that magically made things appear. The magic was inside of Jeronicus’ brain. He was the magic. His brain, his ability to understand science and decipher the most complicated of math calculations was magical in and of itself. The invention that captures our attention at the beginning of the film is a Don Juan doll, played by Ricky Martin. This doll is is brought to life because of Jeronicus’ hard work and belief in the unbelievable.

As Jeronicus celebrates his accomplishments, his apprentice Gustafson, played by Keegan Michael Key, is desperately trying to get his attention to ask for help with his own invention. Unfortunately, Jeronicus is occupied, but assures his apprentice he will be with him soon. Watching over Jeronicus’ recent invention, Gustafson is persuaded by Don Juan’s hunger for power, fame, and wealth so he steals Jeronicus’ book of inventions and runs off.

Gustafson reading over Jeronicus’ invention blueprints  |  Gareth Gatrell/NETFLIX

The relationship between Jeronicus and Gustafson is one of an apprentice looking to learn from his professor. Gustafson desperately craves the approval and validation of Jeronicus, his mentor and boss. It is not uncommon youth and young adults to crave guidance, acceptance, and mentorship from their elders. One of my favorite lines from the film takes place toward the ending, where Jeronicus’ gifts Gustafson the last thing he needed to complete his invention.

Jeronicus had planned on giving it to him on the day Gustafson ran away. Jerounicus, the elder, looks at Gustafson, who still has the eyes of the lost little boy he once was, and says “I would have shown you everything, if only you had waited.” Gustafson had made a lifetime of choices based on the fact that he did not receive what he wanted, exactly when he wanted it. Years later, Jeronicus is able to speak to the little boy in him and tell him that things could have been so different, if only he had exercised patience. 

Spotlighting the Power of Black Girls in STEM

But this film is not just the story of Black male inventors. It is the personification of Black girl magic. However, the magic in this film is not depicted in the traditional sense. Jeronicus’ granddaughter, Journey, depicts Black girl magic because she shows another side of Black girls. So many young Black girls are interested in numbers and science, but for the longest time Hollywood has not depicted on screen Black girls with such interest.

In fact, the first full length feature film highlighting the power and influence of Black women in fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math was Theodore Melfi’s 2016 drama Hidden Figures. Traditionally, Black women, young and old, are often placed in a box. Therefore, it is uncommon to see a little girl who is interested in math and inventing things. And even less common for those hobbies to be not only accepted, but encouraged.

I can only imagine what it must be like to be a young black girl right now. Seeing someone on screen that looks like you, acts like you, and speaks like you. It’s an experience that others have had the opportunity to have for years, but comes few and far between for Black girls. There is a song that Journey sings, where she says, “the square root of impossible is me.” That is where the Black girl magic in this story lies.

Journey’s song lets other little girls know that it is not conceited or arrogant to believe in yourself and your gifts. In fact, it is empowering to have confidence in yourself. To see a young girl who is seen as different be proud of who she is has so much more power than many will realize. This movie shows that everyone belongs somewhere, and every gift and ability has a purpose. Most importantly, Jingle Jangle teaches kids that being different is not negative. In fact, it’s what can create the next best thing.

The Power of Belief

Jingle Jangle provides so many different, yet important life lessons. But the main one is the power of belief. This lesson is brought to life through the interactive robot that Journey finds in her Grandfather’s attic, the Buddy 3000. Unlike other toys, this one runs on belief. After losing so much, Jeronicus gave up on believing in his gifts and talents. But there is power in a Black man creating something. There is power in a Black man believing in himself. There is power is a Black man being surrounded by a family that believes in him accomplishing his goal. Jeronicus Jangle had lost his power because he had lost his belief. Here are two important lessons Jeronicus learned in spending time with his granddaughter Journey.

Netflix | Chicago Sun Times

First, he learns that his invention, the Buddy 3000, always worked. It just needed someone to believe in him. Second, he discovered what the most precious thing he had created was his family, specifically his daughter Jessica. In the midst of his grief and loss, Jeronicus pushed his greatest creation away. As many Black men experience, his main focus was on being the provider and protector of his family. When his inventions were stolen, he felt as though he failed. Although the story is fictional, I am sure many Black fathers can attest to the feelings of hopelessness and defeat that Jeronicu’s felt. But with the help of his family, Jeronicus slowly learns that family is what really matters. And furthermore, family has the power restore your belief in yourself.

The Moral of the Story

Jingle Jangle has catchy songs and an enchanting story. But the significance of this film is in what it represents to Black communities. Through Jingle Jangle Black people feel seen and heard. They can see themselves on screen in narratives outside of the struggle for racial justice; they can see themselves on screen in roles that represent the totality of their existence and not just the monolithic expression most common to TV and film.

The fact is, black people are not all alike. They are all different. They all have different stories, and all of those stories deserve to be told. For some, this is just another family-friendly film, to others a beautiful Christmas movie. But to many Black Americans it is another step in the right direction. This film provides more than just entertainment. It provides the reassurance that there is power in belief, and there is power in us.

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