Other than celebrating Advent, hanging lights, and exchanging gifts, Christmas time is known for its magical stories of goodwill triumphing over hardships and misfortune. And if there’s anything we can use at the close of a tumultuous year such as 2020, it’s stories of hope, belief, and redemption. Usually those stories are told through and by a specifically white cultural perspective. But this year the stories are intentionally more inclusive, especially with the release of Netflix’s Jingle Jangle, which boasts an all-black, star-studded cast. Overall, Jingle Jangle is a family-friendly, fantastical musical picture that adds a unique warmth to the mystical season portrayed by African Americans, which is unusual for a Christmas film.
Jingle Jangle is a cautionary tale for both young and old to hold on tightly to the enchantment of the Christmas season, allowing it to inspire us for greater faith and greater works beyond what is presented to us as plausible.The story—which was written, produced, and directed by David E. Talbert—is told by Grandma Journey (Phylicia Rashad) and takes place in the fictionally diverse town of Cobbleton. It centers on Jeronicus Jangle (Forest Whittaker, Justin Cornwell) and his revolutionary witty inventions that placed him on a path of wealth and prosperity before his apprentice (Keegan Michael-Key, Miles Barrow) steals those ideas for himself. Fortunately, Jeronicus’s granddaughter Journey (Madalen Mills) wills and encourages him with her childlike belief to redeem his abilities as an inventor and toy-maker.
The true wonderment of this film, however, is highlighted in its spiritual parallels to the gospel narrative as well as in its various nuggets of African American historicity embedded throughout the storyline and within the characters. After all, the best stories are those rooted in the densities of yesterday, the weighty realities of today, and the imaginative idealisms of tomorrow. All three vistas are presented in Jingle Jangle, and as we pull truths from its meanings, the story inevitably helps us broaden a multicultural avenue and appreciation for celebrating Christmas this season.
When Jeronicus’s apprentice Gustafson is faced with a decision of whether or not to steal his mentor’s book of ideas and inventions, he is not initially driven by purely selfish ambition. In fact, it is Jeronicus’s creation, Don Juan Diego (Ricky Martin), who convinces Gustafson to steal the book. Diego’s obsession with himself and his desire to be a “one-of-a-kind” toy is what leads him to entice Gustafson. Gustafson’s desire to someday become a famous toy inventor like Jeronicus is what ultimately leads him to be deceived by Diego. And Diego entices Gustafson by his own desires, distorting the language of “stealing” to “borrowing indefinitely” Jeronicus’s book of ideas.
Whether Talbert intended to draw such clear parallels between Gustafson’s waywardness and the first original sin in the Garden of Eden is unclear. But the similarities are uncanny. Just as Adam and Eve were deceived by the serpent to sin against God due to his questioning of God’s original command to not eat from the tree, so is Jeronicus deceived. In the Genesis story, God commanded Adam to not eat from the tree of good and evil. If he did, he would surely die. The serpent, however, exploited Adam and Eve’s misinterpretation that if she merely touched the fruit on the tree she would die. He also added in a bit of aggrandizement to make them believe that by disobeying they could be like God, when the truth was that they already were like God (Genesis 3:1–7). Similarly, Diego convinces Gustafson that if he simply “borrowed” Jeronicus’s ideas “indefinitely,” he, too, could be like Jeronicus. But the truth was, he already was like Jeronicus. He was close to Jeronicus, daily walking with him, learning from him, and even constantly living in his presence. But like Adam and Eve, Gustafson exchanged the truth for a lie. And when his sins are exposed, Diego quickly turns into Gustafson’s accuser (Revelation 12:10).
Even beyond Gustafson’s blunders, though, Jeronicus finds himself making poor decisions as a result of despair. After his wife Joanne Jangle (Sharon Rose) dies and his business fails, he loses his daughter Jessica (Anika Noni Rose) once she is grown. Jessica suffers most as she essentially loses two parents after her mother’s death, due to the joy stripped from Jeronicus. This forced her to leave a once loving father who no longer seems interested in her as he becomes too consumed with recapturing the bliss of his work. Jeronicus’s once vibrant toy shop, full of innovative possibilities, slowly turns into a dilapidated pawn shop on the brink of foreclosure over the years.
However, Jeronicus’s granddaughter Journey helps him find his childlike imagination once again by prodding him to tap into the youthful and exciting possibilities associated with believing. He’s also inspired by her prodigious mathematical and scientific skills—skills he once had when he was younger. This consistent theme of science, technology, engineering and math, and the possibilities brought about through these avenues, throughout the film is an encouragement for young African American children to see. In most instances, the heroes usually regaled in black culture are either athletes or musical artists. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with those professions. They’re just not the only available options for success, and it is important for young people to see that on film.
It’s also worth bringing attention to the subtle encouragements Jingle Jangle can provide for some Black Christians in America. In recent years, amid the complexities of social and theological debates, ethnocentric betrayals and division, and flat-out racism in the church, the faith of many African Americans have been shaken. But Jingle Jangle can encourage us to rediscover that childlike faith once again as we explore the roots of our faith, which extend beyond unorthodox westernized colonial versions of Christianity, and continue to place our hope in Yeshua of Nazareth.
This hope continually testifies to the inherent glory of our identity in Christ despite the centuries-long inequities and deliberate attempts to quell the dignity of African Americans. Such a glorious hope and truth starkly contrasts the cultural lies that might try to implicitly insist that Black achievements are of limited earthly or spiritual value. The truth of who we all are in Christ removes any man-made limitations that seek to suppress the imaginations of brilliant thinkers and innovators throughout our history. And it’s a good thing African Americans did not succumb to such hopelessness. Without their imaginations, inventions, and innovations America would have missed out on some of the greatest creations known to man.
Outside the spiritual implications and encouragements of Jingle Jangle there’s a historical context worth considering that should bolster the imaginative possibilities for the future. The many contributions African Americans made for this country in the form of pioneering inventions following the Civil War is another, perhaps not-so-subtle, parallel made in Jingle Jangle. Most know about George Washington Carver and how his scientific discoveries led to the development of more than 500 products. But little do most know about other Black inventors, like Granville T. Woods (air brakes and telegraph signals), Elijah McCoy (oil/lubricant system for engines), Garrett Morgan (gas masks, stoplights) or Percy Julian (cortisone).
The film even gives a nod to Lewis Latimer by naming one of its characters Edison Latimer (Kieron L. Dyer). The real Latimer made the lightbulb a more practical fixture in the American household and contributed to the invention of the telephone. Additionally, when watching Ms. Johnston’s character (Lisa Davina Phillip) deliver packages in Jingle Jangle, one cannot help but think about Mary Fields—AKA, “Stagecoach Mary,” a 6-foot tall independent woman who was responsible for delivering mail through the Montana wilderness in the late 19th century. With inventions and pioneering feats like these, one can only wonder where America could or would be today had it not been for the patent racism that is pervasive in America.
Fortunately, Jingle Jangle delivers on the hope of optimism by consistently showing what we all can achieve when we set aside jealousy, pride, and a useless maturity which requires sacrificing our childlike confidence for full-grown cowardice. It is a cautionary tale for both young and old to hold on tightly to the enchantment of the Christmas season, allowing it to inspire us for greater faith and greater works beyond what is presented to us as plausible.
In a world with deep divisions and fractions, it can become easy to feel like we don’t belong, especially as Christians. But as long as we cling to our childlike faith, we are never alone, just as Jeronicus tells his granddaughter Journey: “A child with an imagination always belongs. Never be afraid if people can’t see what you see. Only be afraid if you no longer see it.” For reasons such as these, and many more, Jingle Jangle is an instant Christmas classic to pass on for generations.