This feel-good romantic drama follows two parallel love stories; one of Mae (Issa Rae) and reporter Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), the other of her late mother, Christina and her lost love, Isaac.
Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield as our romantic leads was a perfect pairing aesthetically #blacklove. I considered whether this casting choice was inspired by Jay-Z’s ‘Moonlight’ video, which was an all-Black reimagining of sitcom Friends starring both Rae and Stanfield among others. Lil’ Rel Howery can always be relied upon for comic relief as seen in his depiction of Joey in the aforementioned ‘Moonlight’ and our protagonist’s brother in The Photograph as well.
The story dips in and out of present-day New York and 1980s Louisiana, and both eras are illustrated beautifully with the help of Jennifer Greenberg’s set design and Keri Langerman’s costumes. The direction is a little clunky in parts where the camera lingers a bit too long between scene transitions with no real intention or effect. Other than that, the cinematography generally is smooth, and the lighting is soft, contributing to the romantic aesthetic at the right moments. Nothing quite says ‘hold me close’ like the glowy, reflective pavements of rainy New York City.
One topic addressed in this story is that of generational curses and inherited familial traits. This is largely framed by the way in which both Christina, and subsequently, her daughter cope with having a withheld parent. The film creatively shows the effects of insecure attachment styles and the role it has in perpetuating a cycle of poor communication and an inability to confront one’s feelings. Christina didn’t know how to love because her own mother didn’t, and this trickles down to how Mae deals with her feelings. How much power do we have to end unhealthy behavioural patterns and how much does that power depend on being conscious of the harmful cycle in the first place? Mae comments that a lot of “who we are” depends on who we are around at that time, to which Michael retorts that we’d “better make sure you’re around the right people then”. This conversation was a brilliant way of foreshadowing how Mae learned love and why she seems to still be figuring out who she is.
Our protagonists become somewhat of a subplot to the more compelling love story between Christina and Isaac, and the actors playing them (Chanté Adams and Y’lan Noel) stole the show for me. Their love story seemed much more developed and layered in comparison to Mae and Michael’s intertwining modern-day romance. Mae and Michael hit it off almost immediately and fall full-speed into infatuation. In contrast to the slow and passionate build-up of her mother’s love story that we are shown alongside it, some of Mae and Michael’s intimacy feels rushed and unearned.
Comparison aside, Mae and Michael’s love story is relatable as it is modern. The things we deal with in twenty-first century relationships such as distance, lingering exes and things not being ‘official’ could contribute to why their connection doesn’t resonate as deeply as Christina and Isaac’s.
It’s refreshing to watch Black people in film with layers and fleshed out back-stories instead of one-dimensional side-kick characters, with the story revolving strongly around a trauma of some sort (read: crime/drug use/abuse). Even more refreshing is the portrayal of two dark-skinned romantic leads in a time where it is revolutionary for visibly Black women to be loved out loud, represented and included in the main narrative.
The film trundles along for the first half and starts picking up the pace towards the end. One thing this film cannot be faulted for is the sensational soundtrack as the music direction is courtesy of the incredible Robert Glasper. The beautiful jazz score playing while Mae is reading her mother’s letter brings a life and texture to the scene that adds a whole other dimension and conveys a message that isn’t spoken with words. It has the effect of transporting us to Louisiana and serves the story really well.
The standout performance comes from Rob Morgan as present-day Isaac. His heartfelt and moving portrayal contained so much conviction, considering the amount of screen-time he had compared to the other characters. All in all, The Photograph has a strong cast, but I fear they were under-utilised. I would have wanted to see more of Courtney B Vance, Jasmine Cephas Jones and Kelvin Harrison Jr.
If you loved The Notebook you will love The Photograph (I see a titular trend here…). If you’ve ever experienced a love lost, sat and wondered what could have been, this film may just give hope to any of you still holding a flame for that special somebody…
Watch The Photograph on Amazon Prime