Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Dream for Christmas (1973)

          It should come as no surprise that some of the folks involved with this wholesome TV movie, including costar Lynn Hamilton and director Ralph Serensky, were also associated with The Waltons. Like that family-friendly series, A Dream for Christmas is a gentle story predicated on the notion that people are inherently good. What better message for this particular holiday? It’s also useful to note that inspirational stories about African-American characters were still somewhat rare in the early ’70s, when black moviegoers and TV watchers were more likely to see their experience through the prism of stereotypes that were at best reductive and at worst demeaning. With actors of color portraying all the principal roles in A Dream for Christmas, the film offers heartfelt themes related to community, family, religion, and sacrifice. So while it’s easy to criticize the picture for its soft touch, the world can never have enough narratives celebrating the virtues of diversity and kindness.
          Set in 1950, the picture opens in rural Arkansas. Reverend Will Douglas (Hari Rhodes) packs his family into a beat-up car for an impending move to Los Angeles, where Douglas is slated to become the pastor of a small church. His wife, Sarah (Lynn Hamilton), and his aging mother, Grandma Bessie (Beah Richards), accept the necessity of the move, but Will’s three kids are traumatized by leaving the only place they’ve ever known. Upon arriving in L.A., the Douglas family discovers that Will’s new church is endangered. Local developer George Briggs (Robert DoQui), who is also black, plans to raze the church so he can build a shopping center. With Christmas looming on the calendar, Will sets out to persuade George that the church should be preserved, then bolsters his argument by restoring the facility and expanding the congregation. Meanwhile, Will’s family experiences various hardships, ranging from health scares to schoolyard bullies.
          This being a feel-good telefilm, the story’s ending is never in much doubt, but the performers make the journey pleasant thanks to sincere acting. Rhodes, a rank-and-file film/TV actor who never found a breakout role, seems inhibited by the G-rated tone (and presumably a rushed shooting schedule), so he’s merely engaging and stalwart. Hamilton and Richards dig a bit deeper, though each is burdened with syrupy moments, and young George Spell comes off well as Will’s highly principled son. Yet perhaps the most admirable aspect of A Dream for Christmas is the way it expresses a gospel-inflected notion without oppressive religiosity. Even as the gooey score by David Rose tries to pluck viewers’ heartstrings, the cast’s earnest work keeps A Dream for Christmas relatively grounded.

A Dream for Christmas: FUNKY

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