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'Blackjack Christmas' brings family ties, addiction and hope to the holidays

Directed by Victoria Rowell, the BET movie tells a story of addiction, immigration, forgiveness and finding love again.
Kyrie McAlpin as Marsha Matthews, Charmin Lee as Corrine Allen, Kiki Shepard as Yollette and Leigh-Ann Rose as	Gloria Matthews.
Kyrie McAlpin as Marsha Matthews, Charmin Lee as Delores Johnson, Dawnn Lewis as Corinne Allen and Leigh Ann Rose as Gloria Matthews in "Blackjack Christmas."BET+

The holiday season is defined by light but can also sometimes evoke feelings of darkness, from grief to loneliness to depression. In Victoria Rowell’s new Christmas movie, “Blackjack Christmas,” the writer, producer, actress and director said she was drawn to create a holiday film to hit both the gloomy and the bright.

“People need happiness,” Rowell said. “Right now they need hope. There’s a lot of hope in this movie.”

Blackjack Christmas,” which premiered this month on BET+, tells the story of Delores Johnson, a Black woman in her 50s, played by Charmin Lee, who is mourning the loss of her husband while also struggling with gambling addiction. Motivated by her desire to win big, she reconnects with her estranged sister, Corrine Allen, played by Dawnn Lewis, in Jamaica, with hopes of having a place to stay so she could visit a local casino. Their reunification makes the sisters come face to face with issues that plagued their relationship and puts it at risk for further damage and resentment.

Charmin Lee as Corrine Allen in "Blackjack Christmas."
Charmin Lee as Delores Johnson in "Blackjack Christmas."BET+

“I wanted to talk about women, women of color, immigration and the isolation immigration brings — not just in a Christmas capacity, because the holidays are hard for a lot of people, even when families are functioning,” Rowell said.

Rowell, who grew up in foster care, said the inspiration for the film stemmed from her guardian, Barbara Sterling, about whom she wrote in her 2007 memoir, “The Woman Who Raised Me.” Sterling, originally from Kingston, Jamaica, traveled to the U.S. and later became “a pillar” in her life “and remains so.” Rowell said she always “made Christmas so magical.”

Rowell said “Blackjack Christmas” is the third project she filmed in Jamaica, a place where she feels “very grounded.” Through a commercial DNA test, she discovered and connected with one of her relatives, a retired teacher, who lives on the island. 

“Jamaica is very central to me,” Rowell said. “It’s intrinsic to my personal being.”

Adam Lazarre-White as Graham Wilkes, Charmin Lee as Corrine Allen, Kyrie McAlpin as Marsha Matthews and Leigh-Ann Rose as Gloria Matthews in "Blackjack Christmas."
Adam Lazarre-White as Graham Wilkes, Charmin Lee as Delores Johnson, Kyrie McAlpin as Marsha Matthews and Leigh-Ann Rose as Gloria Matthews in "Blackjack Christmas."BET+

Some of the major themes of the movie focus on the challenges of grief, colorism and an issue that afflicts many families: addiction. Rowell said she has witnessed the harm of addiction through the loss of her nephew and by watching others struggle with it when she was in foster care. Her previous projects have also grappled with addiction, including her 2019 movie “Jacqueline and Jilly,” on BET and ALLBLK. 

Illustrated by Delores’s character with her own addiction with gambling, Rowell said addicts can’t be forced into recovery but a loved one can provide support and a listening ear, like Delores’ family in the movie.

Director Victoria Rowell.
Director Victoria Rowell.Days Ferry Productions.

“It’s hard for people to talk about these personal matters, because we feel that it should be kept quiet and kept private,” Rowell said. “But we’re as sick as our secrets. And so, it’s very important that we allow a safe space to talk about mental illness.”

With humorous and heartfelt moments, the movie also touches on some positive life changes, like finding love again, mending broken relationships and forgiving others. Rowell, whose entertainment career spans almost 50 years, said she also wanted to create more representation for more people who look like her. That’s why in many of her works, including “Blackjack Christmas,” she focuses on Black women as central characters and shares their experiences.

“It’s important to me to see… Black producers, in newsrooms, on networks, broadcast — not only on camera, but behind it,” Rowell said. “And so, I will continue to create content that features and profiles people of color, especially African Americans.”

Since its release, Rowell said the movie has garnered positive feedback from groups like book clubs and sororities, which she calls “incredible.” With its PG rating, Rowell said her film also invites both older and younger audiences, with some viewers having already suggested a sequel.

“This is such a Christmas movie and people are watching it again and again,” Rowell said.

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