The Christmas movie season is once again upon us, and few celebrities deliver the holiday cheer as well as Vanessa Estelle Williams. The Soul Food and Candyman actress’ latest is Lifetime’s Welcome to The Christmas Family Reunion, which airs Nov. 29.
Williams plays Eve Christmas who competes, with an iron fist in a velvet glove, against her sister Mona (played by The Game’s Wendy Raquel Robinson in all her glory) to host the annual family holiday gathering.
Christmas Family Reunion is the latest in a string of Christmas movies on her resume that are sure to get us into the spirit of the season. In 2019, she played alongside Rick Foxx and Hollywood legend Marla Gibbs in One Fine Christmas. She followed that with the BET+ movie A Rich Christmas with Bill Bellamy.
“Christmas is my favorite holiday. I like that feel-good feeling and being able to create a new memory,” Williams told BET.com.
She continued, “It's such a bonding time for all families — particularly the families of African Americans who have had a history of violence and struggles. At Christmastime, we get to be safe and around each other and among our own, laughing and eating and creating these wonderfully divine memories and moments that will sustain us through the coming year.”
Her family’s tradition of putting up a small Christmas tree has roots in a painful but magical holiday when she was a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York City.
Williams’ grandmother stepped in to make Christmas special for Williams and her siblings while their mom was hospitalized. Having meager resources, her grandmother bought a small 12-inch tree but lit up nicely.
“We tried to be big boys and girls, not expecting much that year because mommy was in the hospital,” Williams recalled.
Still, in the days leading up to Christmas Day, the kids search the usual hiding places in their Bed-Stuy brownstone apartment —back corners of closets and underneath beds — where gifts were usually tucked away.
On Christmas morning, she and her siblings woke up hopeful but wondering if they should even bother checking under the tree.
“And so we went into the living room, [and] under the Christmas tree and in the whole room were Barbies and GI Joes, everything we asked for,” she said, still filled with wonder as she recounted that moment.
Later that day, the kids carried their gifts with them for a hospital visit with their mother. Months later, she passed away.
“Every time I think about it, it was literally a miracle,” she said. “ I don't know how my grandmother pulled it off. It was magical.”
Acting in Christmas movies opens the door to telling stories that “humanize our existence” in a country that views Black people as negative stereotypes.
In Christmas Family Reunion, her character is an upper-middle-class mother whose son Calvin (rising star Alonzo B. Slater, who had a leading role in Oprah Winfrey Network’s A Christmas For Mary) is the event planner’s love interest.
Williams connected with her character’s protectiveness of Calvin.
“As a mother of sons, I grew into a deep understanding from having dated somebody's son to being the mother of sons who somebody wants to date. So there’s an investment in who your son chooses. And so it became art reflecting life,” she explained about her approach to the role.
At the same time, Eve is willing to learn a few things from her son.
“This is one of the key things that I’ve learned about being a mother is that my children have as much to teach me as I have to teach them,” she added.
The role also gave Williams an opportunity to work with Robinson for the first time.
“I love me some Wendy Raquel Robinson. She’s a funny, sexy actress and a friend,” Williams said, adding that they “came up in this business a long time together,” and applaud each other’s wins.
Like The Steve Harvey Show and The Game actress, Williams has also chalked up lots of wins. In a career that spans decades, from her recurring role on The Cosby Show and Keisha in the 1991 classic film New Jack City to now, Williams has made her mark on Black entertainment.
Her body of work includes TV series and films that were game-changers.
One of her most memorable roles was as Maxine Chadway in the Showtime TV drama Soul Food, which premiered in 2000. She called the show a “trailblazer,” reflecting on its impact nearly 25 years later.
At the time, it was rare to see young Black actors displaying their dramatic chops on a prime-time TV show. It opened the door for shows like Empire and Greenleaf.
“It was trailblazing in terms of giving a wonderful picture of Black people loving each other, being sexy and desirable, all different hues and just normalizing that,” she said. “It moved forward the trajectory of Black people making the decisions about what stories get told and how they're told.”
In a similar way, the Candyman sequel has contributed to reframing the narrative of Black people in the horror genre, Williams noted.
Traditionally, Black characters serve as the “magical Negro” who shares their insight with the lead white character, often sacrificing their life to save the main character. Other stereotypical characters exist only to protect the main character, and in nearly all cases, the token Black character dies early in the film.
Not only is the remake of the horror noire classic about a supernatural boogeyman but also a commentary on America’s long history of violence against Black people. Indeed, the Candyman himself is a representation of white mob brutality targeting Black men.
“It starts with the script,” said Williams, who had a leading role in both films as Anne-Marie McCoy. “So first of all, Jordan Peele, Nia DaCosta and Win Rosenfeld (the three co-writers, with DaCosta also directing) come at it from the point of view and experience of a Black person.”
In the sequel, they don’t “gloss over” anything. For example, the storytellers go at gentrification head-on by exploring its impact on Black communities, particularly through the lens of folks who lived in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green housing projects.
“Gentrification is an act of violence against people. As you displace the Black community here and there, they can no longer live in the communities they grew up in,” she said. “Just having an African American voice, a female voice helming the film, turns it on its head, turns out differently than it's been seen before.”
Williams sees Candyman and DaCosta as part of a movement — not a moment in time.
“As we continue to become the head Negroes in charge and get to decide what narratives we tell and who tells that narrative, that is going to change everything,” she said confidently.
Welcome to the Christmas Family Reunion airs Monday, November 29 at 8/7c on Lifetime.