‘The Photograph’ Film Review: Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield Tentatively Explore Modern Love

Writer-director Stella Meghie’s gorgeous dramedy explores two generations of women looking to balance romance and career

The Photograph

Despite an increasingly evolving black film landscape, we seem to still be facing an overwhelmingly higher ratio of heartrending or even tragic dramas over romantic fare. That’s why there was such a warm show of support on social media when the trailer for writer-director Stella Meghie’s “The Photograph” dropped.

It wasn’t just because it boasts A-listers like Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield; it was the fact that they look like they were happy and in love.

Of course, an awesome trailer with smiling black actors in it doesn’t always mean it’s a good film. But excellent cinematography and a charming script can definitely put it in the ballpark to become one.
“The Photograph” is a bit of an atypical romantic dramedy, in that it goes back and forth in time between two separate but related couples who are both struggling to navigate the love in their lives for very different reasons. It begins in the 1980s with Christina (the wonderful Chanté Adams, “Roxanne Roxanne”), an ambitious young photographer reflecting on her success, who looks directly into the camera and solemnly admits she has failed in the romance department.

This early moment in the film, with its VHS appeal and ’80s hair — marvelously captured by cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard (2019’s “Black Christmas”), costume designer Keri Langerman, and key hair stylists Sherri B. Hamilton and Tarsha Marshall — is instantly recognizable to younger millennials grappling with ideals of success in a rapidly declining dating world. Despite being decades apart, and with the advantage of various feminist strides, black women today still feel pressured to choose between career and romance.

But “The Photograph” challenges its audience to have enough hope to give love a fair shot, against all odds. Thanks in part to Shannon Baker Davis’ remarkable editing, the story smoothly glides between time periods from Christina’s story to her estranged daughter, Mae (Rae), a thriving museum curator who’s similarly unlucky in love. Just weeks after Christina’s passing, Mae reads a letter her mother once wrote her, which compels the young artist to delve into her mother’s untold story, the one she was too immersed in work to share herself.

The details of Christina’s safely guarded life are illuminated by the film’s modest Louisiana setting and the undeniable yet strained love between her and Isaac (Y’lan Noel, “The First Purge”). Adams is luminous as the restless young artist with big city career dreams and a mother (Marsha Stephanie Blake, “When They See Us”) too cynical about her own life to encourage her daughter.

These patterns between mothers and daughters appear often in the film, illuminating what kept a wedge in Mae and Christina’s relationship, which also prevents Mae from embracing a romance with Michael (Stanfield), an up-and-coming journalist working on a story about the late photographer. As Meghie empathetically traverses Christina’s heartbreaking story, she attempts to break its motif and breathe life into a promising romance between two lovers in present day.

It’s a nice departure in between time periods, as the music shifts from classic Anita Baker to more contemporary artists like J. Cole (shout out to Robert Glasper’s fabulous score), as we experience the awkward and hilarious beginnings of a relationship between a cautious lover and a free spirit. Meghie impressively explores the intricacies of old-school and modern romance in a love story that also highlights the binding ties between a distant mother and her daughter.

It’s striking that there is such an everlasting affection between Christina and Isaac, while there remains a level of uncertainty between Mae and Michael, whose relationship begins with a hookup, as the former grapples with the possibility of true love after everything she went through with her mom when she was alive. It seems at first like there’s a curious lack of chemistry between the actors, but that awkwardness could also reflect Mae’s perceptible distrust in love.

It’s hard to tell — there aren’t a lot of scenes with Mae actually talking about her feelings for Michael with anyone except him, with whom she struggles to divulge. It would have also helped to further contextualize the tension between Christina and Mae, whose near apathy toward her mom provokes more questions.

That nervousness between Mae and Michael, however, is balanced by hysterical supporting performances from Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“Waves”) as the eternal intern at Michael’s job, Lil Rel Howery as Michael’s brother, and Chelsea Peretti as Michael’s boss.

Also from this time period is the older Isaac (Rob Morgan, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco”), whose bittersweet story infuses Mae’s and Michael’s with a sense of urgency. Like many modern rom-coms, these supporting roles bring much needed energy to Mae and Michael’s relationship, pushing them together even when the odds seem to turn against them.

Though it’s an intoxicating blend of modern and vintage romance, “The Photograph,” while flawed, is most intriguing when it peels back the layers between a mother and daughter who never really knew each other in life, but whose stories eventually intertwine in ways they could have never imagined. From its gorgeous settings to its bittersweet romance, Meghie has presented a story that emboldens us, no matter where we come from, to trust love.