In an age where it is still rare to see a big-screen romance depicting Black love – without tragedy like “Moonlight” or “If Beale Street Could Talk,” or comedy like “Jumping the Broom” or “Just Wright” – The Photograph is a refreshing, and gorgeously shot, film that focuses on two multigenerational love stories and how the elder informs the newly found love of lead characters Mae (Issa Rae) and Michael (LaKeith Stanfield).
In the film, Christina Eames (Rae) must cope with the sudden death of her estranged mother, which leaves her with several unanswered questions and emotions. Enter rising-star journalist Michael Block (Stanfield), with whom she shares an unknown connection and quickly develops a whirlwind romance – that ultimately leads to Mae not only answering questions about her mother’s journey, but hers as well.
Unexpectedly, the chemistry between Stanfield and Rae is highly engrossing. Seeing Issa stretched without relying mostly on her remarkable comedic timing and the complexity that LaKeith brings – he speaks volumes with his eyes – was fascinating and made the journey worthwhile.
As much a story about familial dynamics as it is a romantic story, The Photograph is also a beautiful portrait of love that is long lost and maternal. I especially appreciated the latter and the passive display of it that’s highlighted – especially when the recipient is unaware of its demonstration.
Director Stella Meghie emphasized that the latter type of love was the original inspiration for the film sharing,
“I started to explore what happens when a person continues to love someone over 30 years without being able to see them, but my inspiration wasn’t initially about romantic love,” Meghie says. “I was inspired by a story about my grandmother not seeing one of her daughters for almost four decades. It made me wonder what it was like for her to think about her daughter every single day but not be able to see her.”
Another interesting dynamic in the movie is the way it showed characters from different walks of life – culturally and financially. Meghie also stated how this display was very much intentional and that she,
“…deliberately made Mae and Michael’s characters in the film upper-middle class because I think it’s important that audiences see all walks of life for African-American people. Mae’s mother, however, grew up with a much lower economic background. It’s time that we get to a point where we make films that everyone can find themselves in.”
And can I just talk a little about Chante Adams, who portrays Mae’s late mother Christina, and what an underused cinematic gem she is? I mean she went from the complex layers and mic rocking skills of the legendary Roxanne Chante in 2017’s Roxanne Roxanne to the goal-oriented single mother in this film – with a role in 2018’s critically acclaimed Monsters and Men in between. She is certainly a force to be reckoned, and I need her cast more.
The extremely handsome Y’lan Noel (Insecure, The First Purge) portrays the younger version of Christina’s love interest Isaac Jefferson and, like the leads, he and Adams’s chemistry is spellbinding. And director Meghie highlights a love scene between the young Isaac and Christina that… let’s just say I haven’t seen beautiful black bodies represented intimately like that since Academy-award winner Matthew Cherry’s The Last Fall!
Y’all, and Rob Morgan is in this! I viewed the entire film before realizing it was he that had me “balling” in Just Mercy as the late Herbert Richardson. In this film, he portrays the elder Jefferson – a man Mike interviews and the reason he meets Mae. With a “Nawlins” drawl and subtle facial expressions, Morgan gently interprets Jefferson’s excitement and heartbreak with ease. He, like Adams, are two of my favorite actors in the last two decades.
I must also mention that it was nice to see veteran actor Courtney B. Vance (American Crime Story, The Preacher’s Wife) and the hilarious Lil Rel Howery (Get Out, Rel), the latter bringing some spot on comic relief to the story.
A poignant and well-crafted film, The Photograph is a sentimental snapshot of a universal theme through an unapologetically Black lens. Character driven and revelatory, the film is not for those seeking a fast-paced romp but rather those who wish to be enveloped in a story of finding love through exploration. I rate the film a 4 out of 5 on the MMTrometer.
Until next thought, Thomasena