Skip to main content
BFI logo











Screenonline banner
Black Christmas (1977)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

The week before Christmas. Gertrude cheerfully prepares a traditional West Indian black cake, helped by white neighbour Lily.

Christmas Eve. Bertie, a postman, returns from work in the pouring rain, to find the house empty. He examines the presents under the tree, then sits down to watch television. Shortly after, Gertrude returns, struggling with shopping. She reprimands him for not having put the lights on the tree. As he does so, he jokes about the dog that has been threatening him on his rounds.

While Gertrude wraps presents, Herman, Gertrude's brother, arrives - a day early. He explains that Dolly, his wife, has left him. Later, he rings Dolly's mother, and demands that Dolly turn up for Christmas Day as planned. Meanwhile, Gertrude's daughter, Renée, sits gloomily in her car with Lily. Declining Lily's invitation of coffee, Renée drops her off and heads home, where her mother greets her warmly. In the living room, she acknowledges her uncle Herman and, with less enthusiasm, 'Mister' Bertie.

With Renée in her room and Gertrude in the kitchen, Herman confides in Bertie his success with a 'white chick'; Bertie is both shocked and impressed. Herman laments Dolly's failure to understand the difference between love and sex.

While Gertrude ices the cake, Bertie answers the telephone. It is Norman, from London, for Renée. She refuses to speak to him. Later, she comes down with presents for under the tree, but soon makes her excuses and heads for bed. Herman is in the spare room - still undecorated, complains Gertrude, after seven years. In bed, Gertrude tells Bertie about her childlike excitement at Christmas Day. Bertie, half-asleep, is indifferent.

Christmas Day. Gertrude attends Church, alone. Renée is sick in the toilet while Bertie and Herman, unsuspecting, wait impatiently to use the bathroom. Downstairs, the three share a bottle of - non-South African - sherry, while Bertie holds forth about his brutal father, and about young people today. Gertrude arrives, and despatches Renée to set the table. Dolly arrives, clearly anxious. Herman is stern, but Gertrude welcomes her warmly.

At dinner, Herman, Bertie and Gertrude exchange poor dirty jokes, to Dolly's obvious discomfort. Renée eats little, which Gertrude notices with concern. When Bertie initiates a 'discussion', asking "Have the capitalists taken Christ out of Christmas?", Dolly becomes upset, and leaves the room. Bertie is mystified, Herman embarrassed. But Renée is appalled at their indifference to what she describes as Dolly's 'breakdown'. When she and Bertie begin to row, Gertrude intervenes, reminding them that it is Christmas. In the kitchen, Renée complains that the family never discuss problems. Gertrude acknowledges that she lacks the language to talk to her daughter, and begs her not to waste her life with an unwanted pregnancy, as she did. Renée, wordlessly, admits that she is already pregnant.

Renée checks on Dolly, who is sitting alone upstairs, reading from her Bible. At the table, Herman irritates Gertrude by expressing his dislike of turkey. She shuts him up and gets him to pull a cracker. Dolly and Renée discuss their problems while the others enjoy plum pudding.

Dolly and Renée rejoin the others for the exchange of presents, and some happiness returns to the house. Gertrude notes disapprovingly that several presents are addressed to Bertie from Bertie. Later, Lily arrives, with gifts for Renée and Gertrude. When Herman flirts openly with Lily, Dolly flies into a rage, flailing at him before storming out. Gertrude follows her into the kitchen, and tries awkwardly to comfort her. Dolly bemoans life in England, talking wistfully of Christmasses 'back home'. Gertrude has little sympathy, insisting that England is home now.

Gertrude returns to the living room, where the others are sitting listlessly or dozing in front of the television. Spiritedly, she insists that they all join in in a 'sing-song'. Demanding that the television is turned off, she sits at the piano and begins to play 'Silent Night'. Slowly, the others assemble around her. As they begin to find their voices, Dolly, cheered by the music, joins them. The television sits abandoned in the corner.