Movie Review – The Photograph (2020)
Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the fourth, feature film from writer-director Stella Meghie and it’s probably the best film that she’s done thus far. Strangely, it’s probably the most conventional or traditional of the films she’s done. The same could be said for her previous feature The Weekend (2019). I suppose that film and this one stand in contrast to her last film to get a wide release, that of Everything, Everything (2017), which was based on a pretty unconventional and non-traditional premise. Her 2017 project was an adaptation of a YA novel. That novel had a kooky premise. Meghie’s original screenplays though aren’t kooky. They’re more straight-forward and down-to-Earth, less gimmicks to them. This feature certainly feels in that same vein, although it could be argued as having somewhat of a gimmick.
The film is a love story, but it actually tells two, concurrent, love stories. It tells the love story of a black woman in New York City. It also tells the love story of a black woman in Louisiana. The first, love story takes place in the present day. The second takes place 30 years in the past. Like the TV series This Is Us, it’s revealed that the two, love stories feature people who are related. It’s the love story of a daughter and her mother. Through the two stories, you see how the issues from one generation can be passed to another or how those issues can affect the other. It’s about the disconnect that can occur between mothers and daughters, which can cause emotional trauma or anxiety that can hurt or hinder people through the years. It’s reminiscent of Rodrigo Garcia’s Mother and Child (2010), but with more emphasis on the romantic aspects.
Issa Rae (Little and The Hate U Give) stars as Mae Morton, a curator at the Queens Museum. After her mother dies, she realizes that there is a lot about her mother that she didn’t know. This is exacerbated when a magazine reporter tracks her down and starts asking her about her mother who was actually a really good photographer. Her feeling like she didn’t know her mother makes her doubt herself and who she is. It also makes her a bit wary in pursuing a relationship with the magazine reporter.
Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out and Uncut Gems) also stars as Michael Block, the aforementioned, magazine reporter. Michael is actually writing a story about Hurricane Katrina. He met an old fisherman who lives near New Orleans. The fisherman led Michael back to New York where he met Mae and becomes smitten with her. Michael recently just got out of a relationship with a woman that he was about to marry. His best friend says he’s on the rebound and shouldn’t jump quickly into something else, but Michael can’t help himself.
It’s strange, but Meghie’s film seems like it was teeing up the possibility of introducing us to Michael’s ex-girlfriend who is named “Tessa.” There’s enough dialogue to suggest that his ex-girlfriend is enough of an issue that her non-appearance in the film almost feels weird. It just seems at one point though that Michael is over his ex, despite the amount of time since his break-up. It hasn’t been that long. His quick ability to move on is almost questionable, but men are often criticized in films for not being able to move on, so it’s probably a good thing in favor of this film that Tessa isn’t a character in this narrative.
Chanté Adams (Roxanne Roxanne and Monsters and Men) co-stars as Christina Eames, a young black woman who would eventually aspire to be a successful photographer in New York City, but, she was born and raised in Louisiana, in the back woods of that state near New Orleans. She lives with her single mother who disapproves of her lifestyle. It’s not clear if her mom disapproves of her desire to be a photographer but her mother certainly disapproves of Christina’s choice of boyfriend, mainly due to economic and financial reasons.
Y’lan Noel (The Weekend and The First Purge) also co-stars as Isaac Jefferson, the young version of the fisherman whom Michael met. He’s sweet and sexy. He mostly lives on his fishing boat. He fishes and crabs, which earns him not much money. He’s happy, but he’s not going anywhere. He’s never going to be able to afford the kind of lifestyle that Christina dreams of having in New York. He falls in love with her, but he’s not motivated to conform to her lifestyle or follow her to the Big Apple.
It’s then put upon Christina to decide if she’s going to stay in Louisiana or go to New York as she planned. Meghie cuts between Christina’s decision and the decision that faces her daughter, Mae. Mae learns that Michael has a job opportunity in London. Mae has to decide to try a long-distance relationship or end things with him. It’s arguable that she and Michael also have to decide, like Christina, to stay or go. The direction and the acting of course try to sell Mae’s choice as being somewhat equivalent to Christina’s choice. Yes, there is somewhat of a parallel between mother and daughter in their romantic choices in this crucial time, but realistically the stakes are just not as dire or intense. They don’t feel as dire or intense.
However, a romantic drama between two African-American characters is rare in mainstream cinema. It could be argued that Meghie had Love Jones (1997) in mind when putting this film together. The 1997 film is probably one of the most well-regarded, African-American romantic dramas ever. Some of the characterizations and dynamics are similar if not the same here as to that 1997 flick. Love Jones was rated R, whereas this film is rated lower and thus softer and safer. This film basically isn’t as charged or even as edgy as Love Jones. The passion that we’re supposed to feel between Mae and Michael isn’t as strong as in Love Jones. That passion does exist between Christina and Isaac. Unfortunately, they’re more the B-plot. However, it’s Christina and Isaac’s story that keeps the film afloat.
Lil Rel Howery (The Carmichael Show and Get Out) plays Kyle, the brother to Michael. Kyle is married and has two daughters. He’s the comic relief as Howery normally is. He’s very hilarious and gets all the laughs in this film. He’s worth the price of admission all by himself.
Rated PG-13 for sexuality and brief strong language.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 46 mins.