The Photograph is a romance-heavy star vehicle for Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield that’s deeply flawed but both sexy and thoughtful. Writer-director Stella Meghie’s fourth feature (after The Weekend, Everything Everything, Jean of the Joneses), thick and multilayered with a lush and precise visual language, invites the audience to look beneath the surface of a standard meet-cute.
To chase down historical photos for a story he’s working on, veteran reporter Michael (Stanfield) finds himself in the archives of the museum where Mae (Rae) works as a curator. Michael is instantly smitten, but Mae is more cautious, her mind preoccupied by the recent unforeseen death of her mother. As their relationship progresses, Mae finds herself feeling the need to reckon with her mother’s past.
A dramatically middle-of-the road but visually distinctive ode to modern black love.
There are actually quite a few love stories in the film, aside from the one between the two main characters: There’s the love shown in flashbacks between Mae’s mother Christina (scene-stealer Chanté Adams, giving the best performance in the film) and country fisherman Isaac (a well-calibrated Rob Morgan) back home in Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana; Mae’s close relationship with her father (Courtney B. Vance); Michael’s close relationship with his older brother Kyle (Lil’ Rel Howery); and Kyle’s happy marriage to Asia (Teyonah Parris).
The Photograph’s plot literally centers around Christina’s photography. Meghie sent then-NYU-student-photographer Jheyda McGarrell to capture the Louisiana landscape of Christina’s childhood, and the way these images are woven into the story makes you wish for an end to the ubiquitous photoshopping of an actor’s face onto archival stills so often seen in movies. Cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard’s (Master of None, Forever) frames emit golden hues from the brown-skinned actors against a backdrop that mostly skews masculine and dark. There is an enduring glow to the look and feel of the picture that is a real gift.
The sensual jazz score hits that midpoint between Coltrane and The Roots, essentially the characteristic sound of Grammy-winning composer Robert Glasper (Miles Ahead). Meghie clearly flew through her music budget with nostalgic glee: artists featured include Al Green, Chaka Khan (“Ain’t Nobody”), Whitney Houston (“You Give Good Love”), Anita Baker (“Caught Up in the Rapture”) and Luther Vandross (his intoxicating cover of Marvin Gaye’s “If You Were Mine”). Both Glasper’s score and this mega-playlist of R&B slow jams give the film an emotional sparkle. But it’s so music-heavy that the pic sometimes feels like a spoken-word open mic.
The Photograph is indeed a disappointingly hit-and-miss affair. Flaws include a contrived hurricane that is supposedly threatening but barely registers; stunted and confused PG-13 sex scenes that come off as fearful of passionate, exposed black bodies; and dim chemistry between Rae and Stanfield.
Stanfield’s breakout over the past few years has seen him playing many an oddball black nerd (Atlanta, Sorry to Bother You, Get Out) as well as the boyfriend in a romance that’s fallen apart (Someone Great, The Incredible Jessica James). But here, perhaps for the first time, he plays his version of a suave hot guy and emotionally attuned romantic with commitment issues. Whereas Rae is often flat dramatically, Stanfield’s sensitive-guy swagger helps us invest in their pairing.
Rae’s performance is noticeably undercooked, as if the actress is not fully connected to the material. This inevitably leaves you wishing she had been able to access the dramatic chops she displayed most notably in the explosive ending of Insecure’s first season. Rae’s standout moments here are tethered to comedy, as when Mae is vocal about her love for rapper Drake (something she shares with Rae’s character on HBO’s Insecure and Rae herself). Indeed, the Kendrick Lamar v. Drake first-date conversation between Mae and Michael is the scene where the chemistry pops the most between the two.
The Photograph stands in the tonal company of films like 1997 indie Love Jones (from then newcomer Theodore Witcher), which was made on a shoestring budget, gained word-of-mouth traction and 20 years later is considered a cult classic. That Meghie has the backing of a large studio that put real dollars into production — as well as an aggressive marketing campaign that banks on newish black stars — is something Witcher could only have dreamed of.
As Academy Award-winner Spike Lee told the New York Times back in 1986 after the release of his feature She’s Gotta Have It, one of the first films to show a black man and a black woman having sex onscreen: “Even the top stars like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor never get to have any love interest in their films. How often have you seen a black man and woman kiss on the screen?” Lee helped kick open this door, addressing the dearth of black romance onscreen and making space for a wave of black love stories in the 1990s like the aforementioned Love Jones, as well as Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s Love and Basketball and others. While this crop of earlier films toed the line between drama and comedy, in the last decade more purely dramatic examples have emerged — from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight to Melina Matsoukas’ Queen & Slim to the forthcoming IFC release Premature from Rashaad Ernesto Green.
The Photograph therefore reflects a trend that’s gaining more traction than we’ve seen before. Despite the film’s middle-of-the-road artistic impact, it represents the growth of something unseen for far too long: true-to-life black love that’s not just played for laughs.
Production companies: Universal Pictures, Perfect World Pictures, Will Packer Productions
Writer-director: Stella Meghie
Cast: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Rob Morgan, Teyonah Parris, Lil’ Rel Howery, Chante Adams, Y’lan Noel, Stephanie Marshall Blake, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas-Jones, Chelsea Peretti, Courtney B. Vance
Producers: Will Packer, James Lopez
Executive producers: Stella Meghie, Erika Hampson, Issa Rae
Music: Robert Glasper
Cinematographer: Mark Schwartzbard
Editor: Shannon Baker Davis
Production designer: Loren Weeks
Costume designer:Keri Langerman
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Michelle Wade Byrd
PG-13, 106 minutes