The Black Gay Holiday Movie That Never Got Its Due
With all the notoriety about the Hallmark Channel airing its first LGBTQ+ holiday movie this year, I was nostalgic about other queer-themed holiday movies that might have been “firsts.”
Earlier this month, I wrote about the 20th anniversary of the premiere of Queer as Folk on Showtime, so I was delighted to see that also 20 years ago this December the network aired what is now considered a LGBTQ+ holiday movie must-see.
Holiday Heart, stars Ving Rhames as the gay drag queen Holiday Heart, who after a break-up with his boyfriend takes in drug-addicted Wanda (Alfre Woodward) and her daughter Nicki (Jesika Reynolds) during the holidays. Showtime was pushing boundaries during this period at the new millennium, with the goal of capturing the LGBTQ+ audience. Holiday Heart, according to my unscientific research, was the first holiday film featuring a drag queen, and one of the first films ever whose lead character was an effeminate, gay Black man.
One of the film’s producers was Robert DeNiro, who as an actor had his own run in with a drag queen (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) the year before, in the movie Flawless. DeNiro’s production company developed Holiday Heart for Showtime, based on a play by Cheryl L. West and directed by Robert Townsend, who is also an actor, comedian, and writer.
I had the opportunity to speak with both West and Townsend about the uniqueness of their LGBTQ+ holiday classic, its relevance today, and the impact of the character of Holiday Heart.
I remember the first time I saw this film, and my reaction to the casting of Rhames as the lead character. It was astounding to see a muscular, large, straight African-American actor, who seemed typecast as an action hero, playing a gay drag queen. Rhames casting didn’t fit into that neat little box that I had ignorantly put drag queens in at that time as white and willowy. I wondered if the casting of Rhames was intentional.
“The writer is usually the last asked when it comes to casting, particularly in film. At the time, we would never have gotten a green light without a recognized ‘star’ in the role,” recalled West. “Even with DeNiro’s company producing the film, we still ran into studios who were only interested if Nicki was white or if I would make the character Holiday white. Either choice held no interest for me. Though its themes are universal, the lens is distinctly Black. Holiday Heart is a story about Black family, Black love, and Black joy.”
And that’s why Townsend felt Rhames shined. “I really thought Ving brought Holiday alive. I am really big on casting. That’s half the job of a director, and when the idea of Ving came up to play Holiday, I wasn’t sure at first if it was the right fit, but once we started rehearsals and shooting the project, I watched Ving commit and transform into the soul of Holiday and he found the unique rhythm that Cheryl had written.”
Indeed, watching it in 2020, you can see the results of Rhames’s efforts, but I wondered if the movie were made today, would they cast differently, given the broader societal acceptance of gay Black men and drag queens? “Yes, there has been a change in attitudes,” West said. “Today, I would definitely want to see an LGBTQ actor have the opportunity to play Holiday and explore whatever nuances he/they might bring to the role.”
Read More: Advocate.com