Review: ‘The Photograph,’ starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in “The Photograph” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“The Photograph”

Directed by Stella Meghie 

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City and Louisiana, the romantic drama “Photograph” has a primarily African American cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Career ambitions and the fear of commitment have affected the love lives of a museum curator and her late mother, who left behind her humble roots in Louisiana to become a famous photographer in New York City.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to audiences looking for nuanced and emotional romantic dramas that don’t fall into the trap of melodramatic clichés.

Y’lan Noel and Chanté Adams in “The Photograph” (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures)

It’s about time. “The Photograph” is a rare treasure of a romantic drama that doesn’t pander to negative stereotypes of African Americans. The people aren’t constantly cursing, the men are gainfully employed and aren’t criminals, and the women aren’t mad at the men for being cheaters, abusers or deadbeat baby daddies. There used to be a time when there were dramatic films that showed a better and more realistic variety of African Americans instead of the embarrassing caricatures that unfortunately are written for many of today’s movies that have predominantly African American casts.

For people who want to see more African American films like “Love Jones” or “Brown Sugar,” fortunately “The Photograph” is a return to these types of movies where black people aren’t all poor, uneducated and/or living in crime-infested areas. “The Photograph” might be considered “boring” for people who like to see black folks yelling at each other non-stop. But for other people who can appreciate classier and more emotionally mature adult relationships, “The Photograph” is the type of movie that will be a welcome treat.

Written and directed by Stella Meghie, “The Photograph” goes back and forth in telling two different love stories from two different eras. The contemporary love story takes place in New York City, and it involves assistant museum curator Mae Morton (played by Issa Rae) and news journalist Michael Block (played by LaKeith Stanfield). They meet because Michael, who works for a news/lifestyle magazine called The Republic, is doing a story on Mae’s mother, Christina Eames, a famous photographer who has recently passed away.

The other love story takes place in late 1980s Louisiana, and it involves Christina (played by Chanté Adams) as a young, aspiring photographer and Isaac Jefferson (played by Y’Lan Noel), a local fisherman who was Christina’s boyfriend at the time. In the beginning of the film, Michael is seen interviewing a middle-aged Isaac (played by Rob Morgan), who basically says that even though he and Christina lost touch with each other when she moved to New York City in the late 1980s, she was the love of his life and he never really got over their relationship ending. Isaac shows Michael a self-portrait photograph that Christina took, and Michael takes a photo of it on his phone, which he later shows to Mae after he meets her in New York.

When Mae and Michael first meet each other at her Queens Museum job, they both think it’s going to be a work-related conversation, but they feel some romantic sparks when they first set eyes on each other. Michael is there to interview Mae (who was estranged from her mother for most of her life) and to see if Mae has any of Christina’s personal mementos that she would feel comfortable showing him. Mae has some letters from Christina that were supposed to be read after Christina died, but Mae has difficulty bringing herself to read all the letters in their entirety.

That’s because Christina abandoned her husband Louis Morton (played by Courtney B. Vance) and Mae when Mae was a very young girl. The reason that Christina gave for leaving them was that she was too devoted to her career to be a good wife and mother. Those emotional wounds never really healed for Mae. And although she feels some level of grief over the death of her mother, she didn’t really know her, and Mae has conflicting feelings about how much sadness she should feel about her mother’s death.

The movie shows flashbacks of what went wrong in the relationship between Christina and Isaac. Although they loved each other deeply, Christina was feeling too restless in Louisiana, and she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a well-known and respected professional photographer. Meanwhile, Isaac was comfortable staying in Louisiana to become a fisherman. The couple parted ways over their different goals and lifestyle ambitions. But the way Christina left was abrupt, and Isaac never really got closure for it.

A few years later after she had married and become a mother in New York City, Christina once again, in a single-minded pursuit of her career, left behind loved ones to focus on her work ambitions. As Mae and Michael start to date and open up to each other, Mae confesses that she’s afraid of becoming just like her mother.

Meanwhile, Michael also has issues with commitment since he has a “grass is always greener” attitude about a lot of his romantic relationships. Before he met Christina, he had a long-distance romance with a woman in Louisiana, but that relationship ended around the time he interviewed Isaac. Mae finds out about the ex-girlfriend and is mildly jealous, but she gets over it when she realizes that she and Michael have something special.

Mae and Michael are a great match for each other. They’re both smart and likable. Mae is funny in a sarcastic kind of way, while Michael is self-deprecating and endearing. They both have similar interests, but not so similar that they’re boring clones of each other. Over their first dinner date, they debate the merits of rappers such as Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Mae confesses that Lamar “makes me feel guilty” because she isn’t always engaged in African American empowerment the way Lamar preaches about it in his songs. That confession is later referenced in a very touching moment near the end of the movie.

Here’s what’s so refreshing about “The Photograph” and the love story between Mae and Michael: They deal with their personal issues in a respectful way with each other. There’s no craziness, no abusive language, no negative clichés such as addictions, infidelity or criminal activity that threaten to tear apart their relationship. If you think about how often these stereotypes are all over movies with predominately African American casts, it’s cause for celebration that “The Photograph” didn’t sink to these levels and does it in a beautiful way.

Another healthy and positive African American romance in the story is between Michael’s older brother Kyle (played by Lil Rel Howery) and Kyle’s wife, Asia (played by Teyonah Parris), who are parents to two young girls. Kyle and Asia offer a lot of emotional support and advice to Michael, and they aren’t afraid to keep it real with him when they think he’s making mistakes. Kyle and Asia have some of the best scenes in the movie when they’re around Michael and Mae. Their dynamic (one longtime couple, one new couple) has an authentic banter that’s great to watch.

But before you get all gooey inside from all this lovey-dovey wonderfulness, it wouldn’t be a romantic drama if the couple didn’t have a big obstacle to overcome. For Mae and Michael, just like with Christina and Isaac, their relationship might have to reach a crossroads because of a career decision. Before he met Mae, Michael applied for a London-based job at the Associated Press.

When Michael and Mae start dating, he doesn’t know if he got the job, but he tells Mae about the possibility that he might move to another country, and that revelation affects her feelings of how seriously she wants to get involved with Michael. But they can’t deny their passionate feelings for each other. And one night, when during a rainstorm that hits New York City, Michael and Mae end up consummating their relationship and they really start to fall in love.

As for the secret that’s revealed in Christina’s letters, it’s pretty obvious from the flashbacks to Christina and Isaac’s love story what that secret is. You’ll have to see the movie to find out Mae’s reaction. And as for that Associated Press job in London, it’s also revealed whether or not Michael got the job, because that also affects his relationship with Mae.

“The Photograph” is by no means a masterpiece. It’s got some pacing issues, and some viewers might want to see Michael and Mae have more people in their lives besides immediate family members and co-workers. But “The Photograph” shows how some people just don’t need a large social circle to be happy. They don’t need messy drama to validate their love relationships. Just like a grape harvester for fine wine, “The Photograph” weeds out a lot of nasty ingredients that could pollute a story like this, and celebrates love that is reaffirming and uplifting.

Universal Pictures released “The Photograph” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.