While there has been a clear rise in studio romances featuring black stars, it speaks to the relative lack of them that we still reach back to 1997’s Love Jones as the prime example of black love represented on the big screen. The comparisons came quickly for The Photograph, a soulful, sultry film featuring the gorgeous, dark-skinned duo of Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield. As directed by Stella Meghie (Everything Everything), the film never shies away from the hues of her stars, instead she makes them glow in a mature love story that could’ve done with turning up the heat a little more.
If you’re wondering why such a big deal is being made about the movie’s brown-skinned stars, it’s because too often black romances have skewed towards the lighter side. That’s not a knock against the people in those movies, but Hollywood would rather give you Common and Paula Patton if they can keep getting away with it. So it’s definitely a refreshing change to see a cast that leans towards the darker side, and to give us a chance to see Stanfield and Rae in a way we’ve never had the chance to before.
The Photograph centers on the unlikely romance between Mae (Rae) and Michael (Stanfield), two busy New York professionals having their struggles with commitment. For Michael, a photographer frequently traveling between the city and Louisiana for work, he’s just coming out of a long-term, long-distance relationship. For Mae, staying committed is as unfathomable to her as it was to her estranged, recently-deceased mother, Christina (Chante Adams), a Louisiana photographer who fled the bayou for larger aspirations in the big city. Christina left behind at least one broken heart, Isaac (Rob Morgan), which is where Michael first sees her picture, and gets in touch with Mae to learn more about this elusive photog.
The story drifts somewhat clumsily between the 1980s, where Christina and a young Isaac (played by Rae’s Insecure co-star Y’lan Noel) grapple with their conflicting ambitions; and the present where Mae and Michael face similar problems. Mae worries that she is just like her mother, incapable of standing still, too committed to her work. But when she’s with Michael, those thoughts seem to melt away. Their first actual date actually looks and sounds like an actual date, where people talk about the things that connect us, in this case Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar. The conversation is natural, funny, and revealing. When Michael asks if it’s too early for a kiss, we already know that it isn’t.
Passion radiates from Rae and Stanfield together, including a steamy encounter during a raging hurricane (“Blame it on the storm”, he says.). But for those expecting a bit more sizzle, The Photograph keeps it to a minimum. The woman sitting next to me literally asked on multiple occasions “That’s it?”, expecting to see a lot more action between the sheets. I couldn’t help but agree. Instead, this is as much a movie about Mae’s reconciling with her mother, attempting to figure out if they’re both so broken as to be incapable of love. To illustrate the differences between the two women, Meghie spends an inordinate amount of time in Christina’s past in Louisiana, with the flashbacks given a surreal, Nicholas Sparks-esque quality. Unfortunately, those scenes are as emotionally thin as one of Sparks’ many adaptations, and are so somber it has us yearning for someone to spice things up. Lil Rel Howery and Teyonah Parris add a much-needed dose of humor as Michael’s married brother and sister-in-law, who try and fail to warn him against falling too quickly in love
The Photograph is a stunningly beautiful movie, with Rae and Stanfield always kept in tight, warm focus by Meghie and DP Mark Schwartzbard. While the central romance is just a snapshot of what it could’ve been, modern black love has rarely looked so good.