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How Baltimore and Morgan State influenced the writer/director of Netflix Christmas movie ‘Jingle Jangle’

Almost everyone has a favorite holiday movie that they watch each year. Now, David E. Talbert, a 1989 Morgan State University graduate, has written and directed a film that based on early response may be added to many annual must-watch lists.

The Netflix movie “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” features a mostly Black cast loaded with big-name actors like Forest Whitaker, a villain, a robot named Buddy, and lots of music and dancing. The film, set in a Victorian village, shares the story of a toymaker who is trying to rediscover hope and joy with the help of his granddaughter.

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Talbert, who has fond memories of Morgan State and Baltimore, says while living here, he developed a can-do attitude flavored with a special sauce straight out of Lexington Market.

He spoke with The Baltimore Sun on Monday about why he made the film and how parts of it reflect some of his time in Baltimore.

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This interview has been edited for length.

Madalen Mills and Writer/Director David Talbert on the set of "Jingle Jangle."
Madalen Mills and Writer/Director David Talbert on the set of "Jingle Jangle." (Gareth Gatrell)

Why did you make this film?

I sat down a few years ago with my son to watch [the 1968 movie] Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” because that was my favorite film. I’m singing all of the songs and my son wasn’t into it. I realized that on his wall there’s Miles Morales [an Afro-Latino superhero] and Black Panther [a Black superhero.] And I said, “OK, this wasn’t my childhood.” There wasn’t a hashtag diversity, hashtag inclusion, hashtag woke. No one was woke in the ’60s. No one was woke in television.

Why now?

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I wanted my son to see himself represented, and especially with his father being a filmmaker, I could do something about it for my son. Then I wanted to not only do something about it for my son, but for sons and daughters in the world of color that want to see themselves represented.

Why do you think this film resonates with people, especially Black people?

I think the same way there was such pride in [the 2018 movie] “Black Panther” when that came out, because we’d never seen Africa depicted in such grandeur even though Wakanda is a fictitious place. I think in this [film] we have never seen us in this world — in this Victorian world — with natural hair and patterns from Africa mixed in with scientists and alchemists. ... It is the most beautiful version of ourselves in a world of wonder. What it says is that we not only belong there, but we thrive there.

Was there anything about Baltimore that was reflected to this film?

I would say Lexington Market. When I went down to Lexington Market, there were Black stands selling Caribbean food and soul food. Some of the seafood there had a little bit of special seasoning flavor that was just kind of a Black thing and you felt a sense of cultural pride. Yes, it was maybe the same kind of lobster or crab that they pulled from the ocean, but when it got in our hands and it went through our filters it had a certain thing to it. When it came time for me to do “Jingle Jangle,” yes, it’s a whimsical magical tale and yes, it’s set in a Victorian town and yes, it is a period piece, but when it comes through my filter, we put some special sauce on it and it gives a little special magic to it.

Buddy and writer/director David Talbert on the set of "Jingle Jangle."
Buddy and writer/director David Talbert on the set of "Jingle Jangle." (Handout / HANDOUT)

Being a student at Morgan State University, no one ever told me what I couldn’t do. The first time I went to professor Clinton Holmes, I wanted to be a writer and he said “Why don’t you write a play?” I said “OK.” I wrote a play and gave it back to him and he said “This is pretty good, young man, you might have a career in this.” Now, I’m sure it was the worst play ever written, but he never told me I couldn’t soar as a writer. So, when it came time to do this movie, I’d never done a musical on film, I’d never done digital effects, I’d never done a digital piece, I’d never done any of that. But I remembered back in Morgan that no one said what I couldn’t do and so it gave me the courage, the confidence to knock it out and here we are now.

Is there anything else you want to share with The Baltimore Sun readers or the folks at Morgan State?

Being in Baltimore, blue-collar town, not only did the university embrace me as a dreamer, but the whole city embraced me as someone who was bold enough to try something and they stuck with me as I grew and was learning my craft. I’ve just got love for the city and love for the people and love for what I learned there, kind of a working class approach that I keep in everything I do. I keep my feet on the ground, I roll up my sleeves and I get it done.

Tatyana Turner is a 2020-21 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project, a national service program that places emerging journalists in local newsrooms. She covers Black life and culture. Follow her @tatyanacturner.

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