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Khalilah Joi on the power of the Christmas movie and why she made ‘Baking Christmas’

We catch up with the rising star to talk about pop culture this time of year and why she loves it on the occasion of her OWN holiday movie.

Khalilah Joi on the power of the Christmas movie and why she made ‘Baking Christmas’
Khalilah Joi in Baking Christmas. [Photo: courtesy of OWN]

Khalilah Joi has a burgeoning career as an actress with a sizzle reel comprised of diverse roles. Much of her fan base fell in love with her character, Wendy, who appeared in multiple shows in the Black & Sexy TV universe, a streaming service geared toward African American millennials and Gen-Zers. One of Joi’s most heavy-hitting roles to date is that of a rape victim in a powerful episode of Grey’s Anatomy that aired last spring.

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Joi’s latest role is a complete 180, though—and a serendipitous one at that. She’s one of the leads in Baking Christmas, an OWN original movie which debuts on Friday as part of the network’s recent foray into original holiday films.

“I love Christmas! Like, I am that person who gets on people’s nerves,” Joi tells Fast Company. “I am the person who is constantly fighting not to play Christmas music all day because I try to hold off until Thanksgiving just to be respectful, and I have always adored Christmas.”

Baking Christmas, which also stars Tim Reid, Aloma Wright, and Jackée Harry, features a family whose matriarch plans to retire from her successful business—a bakery named Patty Cakes—and pass it down to one of her three children, each of whom are qualified to run the business in a different way. Joi plays Jennifer, one of the children vying for a spot to continue the family’s legacy. Obviously, this won’t be an easy task, and the journey, amid the shenanigans, will teach lessons about family and togetherness just in time for the holiday season.

It’s a standard feel-good Christmas movie—the type of movie that will elicit mixed reactions as this genre tends to do. Yet ironically, even the Grinches among us still have a little bit of joy lurking beneath tough exteriors during this time of year. But sometimes all it takes is a little bit of Joi (pun intended). Fast Company chatted with Joi, who shared that she has always wanted to be in a Christmas movie and why Scrooges need to just give into the cheer.

(Left to right) Leigh-Ann Rose, Tim Reid, Aloma Wright, Khalilah Joi, and Arnell Powell in Baking Christmas. [Photo: courtesy of OWN]

Fast Company: People seem so overwhelmingly anti these days when it comes to Christmas movies. But there’s no better person to make the case in favor of a Christmas film than someone who loves the season and is actually starring in one.

Khalilah Joi: Holiday films are an important part of pop culture because one, a lot of them stand the test of time. There are movies, particularly Christmas movies, that we’ve been watching since the 1950s, like It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s these very earnest, genuine things that people relate to no matter what generation you’re in. We have these movies that have been out for decades, that little kids watch today and they love them, and there’s something really special about that. Not a lot of movies can do that. When I go back and watch the movies I loved as a kid, [some of them] don’t hold up. You watch them later and they’re not good anymore, but I think a lot of holiday films do that. And I think the reason they do that is because they speak to a part in all of us, whether we want to admit it or not, that kind of misses the magic of what it is to be a child and to believe in miracles in that way. When you’re a kid and you don’t have the cynicism, and you don’t have all the worries and adult stuff on you, all you feel is the warmth and the love.

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I know everybody’s situations are different, but I hope people feel warmth and love and camaraderie and fellowship. A lot of people long for that in their adult lives, too, and that’s why we go back to these tried-and-true films that make us remember what that felt like. There’s a sense of nostalgia and a sense of home and the sense of well-being that kind of washes over you that I think is wonderful. I don’t know why anybody wouldn’t love that. It’s just a great feeling, and I think it’s important for us to remember that innocence and that magic.

FC: Even the Grinch and the man who wanted to kill himself in It’s a Wonderful Life eventually opened their eyes to the beauty of the world—that thing that hits them that makes them realize why other people are participating in the cheer.

KJ: There’s kind of like a cool factor in being a Scrooge or a humbug. There’s enough hardship in the world. There’s enough contention and all of these things that we’re dealing with everyday. Why not lean into the good stuff? Christmas is the perfect time to lean into the good stuff!

FC: Speaking of the good stuff, what’s one of your most intense Christmas habits since you love it so much?

KJ: It’s probably the music. When I say nonstop—I will be at the gym lifting weights, and it will be like Bing Crosby in my ear, and I’m like, if anybody knew what I was listening to they’d think I was a psychopath. It’s just so antithetical to be squatting, lifting heavy weights, listening to old traditional Christmas songs. But I play it on the speaker in the house. I’m in the shower, it’s on. I’m cooking, it’s on. It’s a lot. The music is a lot.

(Left to right) Leigh-Ann Rose, Khalilah Joi, and Arnell Powell in Baking Christmas. [Photo: courtesy of OWN]

FC: Christmas music is actually an underrated genre given how it affects people. But do you think that feel-good sense is why OWN decided to tap into the holiday entertainment market with original Christmas programming? And in this case, there’s a black family being featured, which lends itself to the ongoing diversity discussion. That feels intentional.

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KJ: I don’t know for sure but my theory is it’s probably because over the years, there has been a lack of diversity in holiday films specifically—and I say that because I’ve had this conversation with other friends of mine who love holiday movies—but the last 10 years it has gotten better. If you go back and look at the slate of holiday films that we’ve had, particularly made-for-TV films, there’s just not a lot of diversity. There aren’t a lot of people of color, certainly not a lot of people with disabilities—all aspects of diversity. There just has not been that, and I think OWN probably observed that space that needed to be filled, and deserves to be filled, because black folk love Christmas, too! It feels good to be able to see a family that reminds you of your own, and you see it and it’s like, “Oh my God, this is great!” And you have that experience with your own family to kind of create this new tradition, which I hope people will do when they sit down and watch these holiday movies. So, I think that has a lot to do with it.

Khalilah Joi (left) and Tim Reid (right) in Baking Christmas. [Photo: courtesy of OWN]
FC: Finally, what do you hope viewers take away from Baking Christmas?

KJ: I hope people take away the fact that no matter how far you may have gone from what you call home, you can always find your way back, and there’s always love there for you. A big part of what we see in this movie is particularly with the siblings—they’ve all gone their separate ways. Jennifer, my character, stayed home, but my younger sister went to Paris, my older brother is in New York, and there’s a distance between us. So, when we’re back home, and we’re back in Patty Cakes, and we’re back at the dinner table, everything feels the same again. Through the course of the film, the characters realize how important those things are—things that you can’t put a price tag on. There are things that are transient and come and go, but the love of family and the warmth and the necessity of home is forever. Everybody can relate to that, and I hope everybody realizes that time could have passed, and distance could be at play, but you can always come back together and find that love again, and I think that’s important.

Baking Christmas airs Friday on OWN at 9 p.m. ET.

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