Distributor: Universal Pictures
Director: Stella Meghie
Writer: Stella Meghie (screenplay)
Composer: Robert Glasper
Starring: Lakeith Stanfield, Issa Rae, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Rob Morgan, Lil Rel Howery
Genre: Drama, Romance
Issa Rae has come a long way from The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl. After Inscure became a three-season hit with the fourth coming around the corner in April 2020, the YouTuber went full Hollywood. Featured prominently in The Hate U Give, and as the mother’s voice in the Academy Award-winning animated short , Hair Love, Rae is not showing any signs of regress, unapologetically aspiring to be a positive image for black women everywhere.
Lakeith Stanfield has benefitted from a similarly meteoric rise. I first saw him portraying Jimmy Lee Jackson, who was murdered by Alabama police 1965, in Selma. Most, though, will remember him hand-shaking what was supposed to be a fist-bump in Get Out even though he played as Snoop Dogg, of all people, in Straight Out of Compton.
Though their careers started from humble beginnings, Rae and Stanfield pair up in a feature-length romance, putting their skills to test.
Language/Crude Humor: I recall that the film utilizes its allotment of one f-bomb for a PG-13 movie. Besides that, expect a few s**ts and d**ns.
Drug/Alcohol References: Drinking alcohol is as common as is considered socially appropriate.
Michael: “Why you’ve got your head down like you’re praying?”
Mae: “Because I might need to.”
“What would you pray for?”
Spiritual Content: In the post-Tyler Perry era, I might have to begin growing accustomed to a lack of a religious influence undergirding the lives of black folk. While an image of a Catholic-style Jesus on a cross appears twice during the course of the film, the only other instance of anything remotely spiritual involves a scene where a man asks a woman why her head is bowed because she looks like she is praying. She replies that maybe she is… for willpower. All of this is done in jest, of course.
Sexual Content: There are two sex scenes in this film. In one, the woman de-clothes with her back turned to the camera as she faces the intended recipient of her charms. The scene then shifts to morning where they lay cuddling in bed.
In the other sex scene, the couple romps in bed in complete darkness. As with most sex scenes, I wonder what purpose they serve in film even though I know they are spectacle. The scenes in The Photograph are cable television appropriate; while I am not necessarily disappointed in the lack of nudity, I wonder what is the point of having the actors and actresses go through the motions.
A New York-based photographer, Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield, Selma; Get Out) travels to Louisiana to interview Issac Jefferson, the ex-lover of a deceased, but once-renowned photographer. The subject of the conversation is one Christina Eames (Chanté Adams), upon whom Michael plans to write a long-form article. Meanwhile, back in New York, Mae Morton (Issa Rae, The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl; Insecure) checks a lock box for the inheritance that her recently-deceased mother, Christina, has left her, which includes a tell-all letter.
The content of these of these letters propels the plot forward through director/screenwriter Stella Meghie’s deployment of flashbacks to the past events impacting the present. This style of narrative is far from new—put in less flattering terms, Christina’s letters could have been pulled right out of the spiral bindings of The Notebook. But rather than conveying the memory of a tenderhearted love story of remembrance, Christina’s letters bear bittersweet news: she left her lover, Issac Jefferson (young Isaac played by Y’lan Noel), the father of her child. Indeed, Mae discovers that the man she grew up thinking was her father, is actually not. Somewhere, Murray Povich is beaming.
Mae processes this letter throughout The Photograph, the film’s titular attribution referencing the one image that has ever existed of Christina, taken by Isaac without her permission. Her mother’s post-mortem revelations play in the background of Mae’s mind as she engages in a relationship with Michael, who is also studying Christina but for reasons that do not become clear until later. Those reasons are hardly earth-shattering, but the film perplexingly elevates them to the level of an existential crisis, manufacturing a dilemma that he believes will place his budding relationship with Mae in jeopardy.
The flashbacks presented through Christina’s letter all but reenact the pain of the mother-daughter relationship as seen in The Notebook, though Christina chooses pursuit of her ambitions as a photographer over the love of her life. Isaac and Christina’s scenes illustrate the kind of innocent love that one might expect to see in film—the kind where the enamored are none too concerned with how to pay the bills, or what other people think about their relationship. They are happy, until Christina spontaneously is not, and she runs away without warning. Had Christina and her man ever reconciled their relationship, my mind would have been placed at ease. As The Photograph stands, Christina is a woman who shall not be bound.
May then, as her mother’s daughter, and engages with Michael cautiously. Though through the film’s runtime and after several drinks, they eventually do jump in the bed, but this indulgence of their relationship is not love from at first sight. Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield’s on-screen chemistry is like cold lettuce on hamburger. They are a match, but there are better options.
Mae: “I’m terrible at first dates. I just don’t know whether to be vulnerable, or loose, funny.”
Michael: Just be yourself.
“What if I don’t know what that is…What if you just learn to adapt to whoever you’re nearby?”
“Then I guess you best mind who you surround yourelf with.”
The Photograph seems to wonder if love is even possible given its passively lingering skepticism. The question, “Do Michael and Mae even like each other?” hangs over the film, despite the simultaneous existence of a successful marriage between Kyle (Lil Rel Howery, Get Out) and Asia (Teyonah Paris, If Beale Street Could Talk), and the seemingly more successful relationship between their wingman and wingwoman, Andy and Rachel. Not all relationships flow naturally however, and will require work. Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae successfully embody individuals weaving their way through those amorphous phases of a laissez-faire relationship.
However, these developmental awkward conversations concerning distaste for Kanye West because he’s lost his mind, or a preference for Kendrick Lamar even though his social justice raps might make one feel guilty, does not necessarily make for entertaining film. The tricky thing about The Photograph, though, is how it prevails even as it falters. I cannot name a high-profile black romance film (not to be confused with romantic comedy at the expense of Lil Rey Howery’s levity) that doesn’t end in tragedy since Love & Basketball or Love Jones. That said, though Michael and May are accomplished individuals in their own right, they are otherwise regular folks. And perhaps watching regular folks grow progressively and rationally in their feelings for each other is worth witnessing.
+ Jazzy OST + Great lead performances + Romance, without the comedy
- The big reveal is loaded with dramatic irony - Communication being key is a lesson not learned through two generations of women
The Bottom Line
Love, is complex, and The Photograph should be applauded in its efforts to illustrate this.