‘The Photograph’ Is the Rare Hollywood Movie Showing Modern Black Love. If Only It Were a Better Film.
Filmmaker Stella Meghie’s romantic drama, starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, is “like a dramatic, black Nancy Meyers movie” if everyone was 20 years younger.
Black love on screen is not new, but many black audiences still thirst for contemporary visions of relationships that don’t require a white companion. The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie, delivers on a basic level, with cozy, sumptuous imagery of well-lit black skin to dazzle—but the screenplay lacks sufficient substance to ground it.
Featuring Insecure creator and lead Issa Rae and Atlanta scene-stealer Lakeith Stanfield as lovers at a crossroads, the film is a just-OK Valentine’s Day romance about commitment, career, and vulnerability across two generations of families. Portraying reporter Michael Block and Queens Museum curator Mae, Stanfield and Rae were obviously cast for their star quality—which comes through—but the faux-seriousness of their roles confines them, and both get buried under the script’s refusal to meaningfully develop their characters. Thankfully, The Photograph occasionally rises beyond its low-stakes mediocrity and unexplained characterizations due to the considerable efforts of its supporting actors. It’s the film’s second-stringers you should head to the multiplex for—they provide a master class in digging an undeveloped story out of its own muck, and make you pine for more and better films that will make good use of their talents.
The striking Y’lan Noel plays Young Isaac, the late-1970s/early-1980s version of Mae’s photographer-mother Christina’s (Chanté Adams) first love. You’ll recognize Noel from Insecure, where he played Rae’s love interest Daniel King for a few seasons. In The Photograph, he does much with a rote script and barely-there direction to momentarily elevate the story of a satisfied Louisiana born-and-bred working-class man in love with a flighty, ambitious woman artist above cliché. And what’s more, Noel brings both dizzying beauty and undeniable talent to life on screen, recalling the glamor and skill of actors like Sidney Poitier, Charlotte Rampling, Angela Bassett, Paul Newman, and Denzel Washington. I could go on.
Kelvin Harrison Jr., of Luce and Waves fame, plays an intern at The Republic, the magazine Stanfield’s Michael is a star reporter for. Harrison has fun with the film’s simplicity, and seems to wink at the audience, though not too much. His small, puckish gestures mixed with his confidently low-key presence in the bizarrely-affluent New York media world of the film makes his impressive line delivery almost secondary. Like Noel, he possesses the camera-ready beauty primed for big films, but also lacks the ego that can make that kind of beauty limiting—he contorts his face and hunches his shoulders to telegraph his early-twenties insecurity and embarrassment, never explicitly asking the audience to care about him, but winning us over anyway. Harrison is poised for an impressive film career, and directors should not forget to cast him in comedies, where he’ll shine just as much, if not more, than in the indie dramas he’s already known for.
Finally, Get Out’s Lil Rel Howery and If Beale Street Could Talk’s Teyonah Parris bring bright humor to the film as Michael’s brother and sister-in-law, a comfortable married couple with kids who tease and challenge their little bro for his lingering immaturity. They make convincing delivery of dull dialogue look easy, even fun, and after watching them for a while, you start to get comfortable in the world of the film. It’s never explained why everyone (save the young Isaac and Christina in the flashbacks) is so rich, but Howery wears his affluence with the same skepticism he uses on his brother; he seems to have no idea why he’s in such a big, beautifully-decorated house, in such a nice cashmere sweater, sharing his food (“Groceries are expensive!”) with his hanger-on sibling, whose home we never see. Mae, a curator in Queens, lives in a multi-million dollar New York apartment outfitted with crystal glasses, mid-century modern furniture, and Kehinde Wiley prints. In this way, The Photograph is like a dramatic, black Nancy Meyers movie if, to borrow an observation from a friend, everyone was cast twenty years younger. Obviously, mainstream audiences don’t necessarily want their big city Valentine’s Day fare to be set in rundown Bushwick studios or the moonlit driveways of Bay Ridge, yet the sheer luxury of The Photograph’s various settings is, at times, disorienting.
Still, the movie fails to deliver on the best parts of even the sappiest romantic drama (or comedy): the real consequences of loss. At the beginning of the film, we find out Christina has just passed away from cancer, without having told Mae or her father (Courtney B. Vance) that she was sick. Neither seem all too shaken up. There could be a reason for this—we get the sense that Christina was a somewhat neglectful mother who was present physically but not emotionally—still, Rae and her dad seem resigned, even over it. Later in the film, Michael attempts to ghost Mae, just as Christina ghosted her first boyfriend Isaac years and years ago to move to New York. It doesn’t quite work out the same way for Mae and Michael, but the betrayal is never meaningfully addressed. By the end of the film, the responsibility for keeping the flame alive weighs entirely on Mae, for reasons that never become apparent. As I sit here writing this, even more plot holes come to light.
The Photograph, while beautifully photographed, costumed, and designed, is, above all, an unfinished and undaring film. With the admirable intention of telling a very contemporary story about black love that doesn’t delve into trauma porn—like Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground, Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones, Horace B. Jenkins’ 1982 film Cane River, released for the first time this month at BAM in Brooklyn, or even Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman—Stella Meghie unfortunately veers too hard into fluff. She does, however, make shrewd casting choices, especially with a sleight of supporting actors equipped with incredible versatility as performers. Hollywood, an industry known more for suppressing the careers of black talent than letting them flourish, better get in line.