Halloween has passed, and Mariah Carey has unthawed, so the holiday season is again upon us. One of the greatest Charles Dickens adaptations, “A Diva’s Christmas Carol,” the 2000 film starring Vanessa L. Williams, is still unavailable to stream anywhere on the (legal) internet. So, this reviewer was surprised to discover its spiritual successor, “A New Diva’s Christmas Carol.” While this 2022 film does not necessarily stick to the source material, it does have a lot of heart and charm.
This new film, directed by “Chappelle’s Show” veteran Rusty Cundieff, follows in its predecessor’s footsteps while also trying to forge its own new path. R&B singer Ashanti stars as Aphrodite, a pop star who rocketed to fame off the strength of one enduring love song called “Shine.” It’s the kind of track people play at their weddings, school dances, and probably some car commercials, too. But at present, she’s the mean-spirited judge on “Pop the Question,” a singing competition TV show where she mentors aspiring musicians. But in true Ebenezer Scrooge fashion, Aphrodite spends more time terrorizing her assistants, the producers, and the talent than she does fostering the youth.
Initially, I thought the film was attempting to evoke Mariah Carey with the diva antics, the generationally successful pop single, and the Christmas setting. But Ashanti’s Aphrodite is really just a more cynical take on Williams’ Scrooge from the prior film. She gets into a Karen-off with a white clothing store employee, each aiming their smartphones at one another like revolvers in a duel, only instead of bullets, they’re firing back the size of their respective TikTok audiences. Rounding out the cast, there’s her executive producer and former best friend Femi (Sabryn Rock) in the Bob Cratchit role. Kyra (Robyn Alomar), the injured girlfriend of Aphrodite’s new mentee Brianna (Mckenzie Small), fulfills the Tiny Tim spot.
When it’s time to do the traditional merry-go-round of Christmases past, present, and future, this film throws the audience some curveballs. The spirits are replaced by a trio of nebulous deities. Bastia (Vivica A. Fox), Sahra (Robin Givens), and Zero (Eva Marcille) are all trying to earn their way back into the Pantheon by answering Aphrodite’s childhood prayer of bringing the Christmas spirit into her life. The haphazard presentation of their mythology aside, these three ladies imbue a ton of humor into the proceedings, even if the tone of that comedy feels as goofy as something one might find in a Nickelodeon or Disney Channel movie.
There are times when this mostly light-hearted movie takes a darker turn. Aphrodite’s mother, Vanessa (Sarah Murphy-Dyson), is manipulative, cruel, and passive-aggressive to her daughter. After Aphrodite becomes a household name, Vanessa refers to her as “a medium-pretty girl who wrote a decent song.” It’s painful to watch in a film so otherwise bubblegum in its levity. It’s even worse when we see Aphrodite espousing the same rhetoric to other young women that her mother forced upon her, the idea that because it is that much harder for Black women to succeed, the only real way to do so is to become hard and cold and unfeeling.
Quite frankly, Ashanti is not a strong enough actress to truly sell the film’s third-act transformation, nor does she hold her own throughout the entire picture. But she’s got enough presence and pop cultural cache that the audience can still root for her through all her rudeness, knowing the film will reward us with a return to good. No matter how tonally inconsistent the film becomes, its final moments, in true “Christmas Carol” fashion, are too heartwarming and comforting to linger on any other criticisms. You’ll all be too busy wanting to hug someone to gripe about the screenplay.
“A New Diva’s Christmas Carol” is available to purchase on Amazon, Apple TV+, Vudu and other digital outlets.
This piece was written during the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the actors currently on strike, “A New Diva’s Christmas Carol” wouldn’t exist.