Review: ‘A Journal for Jordan,’ starring Michael B. Jordan and Chanté Adams

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in “A Journal for Jordan” (Photo by David Lee/Columbia Pictures)

“A Journal for Jordan”

Directed by Denzel Washington

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1998 to 2018, in New York City; Akron, Ohio; Washington, D.C.; and Iraq, the dramatic film “A Journal for Jordan” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American and white people, with a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, a single mother to a 12-year-old son tells the story of her relationship with her son’s deceased father, who was a U.S. Army sergeant killed in the line of duty in Iraq.

Culture Audience: “A Journal for Jordan” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Michael B. Jordan, director Denzel Washington (who does not appear in the movie) and emotion-driven stories about love and loss.

Chanté Adams and Michael B. Jordan in “A Journal for Jordan” (Photo by David Lee/Columbia Pictures)

“A Journal for Jordan” pulls at audience heartstrings in all the right ways by telling this romantic and bittersweet story that ultimately celebrates life and what we make of it. Directed by Denzel Washington and written by Virgil Williams, the dramatic film “A Journal for Jordan” is based on journalist/book publisher Dana Canedy’s 2008 memoir of the same name. The book not only told Canedy’s story but also the story of her fiancé Charles Monroe King, a U.S. Army sergeant who was killed in the line of duty in Iraq in 2006, less than two months before he had been scheduled to return to the United States. The book included King’s journal entries that he wrote to his and Canedy’s son Jordan, who was a baby when King died.

“A Journal for Jordan,” which is Washington’s fourth feature film as a director, is his most sentimental and heartwearming movie that he’s helmed so far. It’s also the first movie that Oscar-winning actor Washington has directed where he is not in the movie as an actor. Although the movie’s title might give the impression that Jordan (played by Jalon Christian) is the focus of the story, he is not.

The story (which jumps around in the timeline) is centered on Jordan’s parents Dana (played by Chanté Adams) and Charles (played by Michael B. Jordan) and what happened during their eight-year romance. The other parts of the movie show Dana’s life as a single mother raising Jordan. Washington and Jordan are two of the producers of “A Journal for Jordan.”

A movie like this could be overly sappy, but director Washington shows admirable restraint in letting the story unfold tenderly—mostly in flashbacks that have the tone of fond memories through the lens of longing for someone who has passed away. Even the film’s musical score (by Marcelo Zarvos) is understated. There are no bombastic, violin-heavy orchestrations to manipulate people’s emotions, as is often the case with movies about tragic love stories.

“A Journal for Jordan” opens with a fever-dream type of montage that’s a collage of memories of Charles and Dana as lovers, as well as scenes of the Iraq combat zone where Charles tragically lost his life. If people see this movie without knowing what the story is about beforehand, it’s clear in the first five minutes that someone has died. The movie doesn’t take long to tell audiences who it is.

The movie’s first scene of dialogue takes place in New York City in 2007. Dana is a senior editor at The New York Times, where she’s an intelligent, hard-working and ambitious employee who does investigative news work. She’s just landed an interview with an important source for a story she’s been working on of her own initiative.

When she tells her boss (played by Stephen Sherman) that she got this crucial interview, she’s dismayed to find out that he’s assigned a co-worker named Rosenblum (played by Spencer Squire) to work with her on the story, based on Rosenblum saying (but not proving) that he could have valuable information to add. Dana isn’t happy about someone being added to a story that she worked hard on from the beginning. And she says so to her boss, who basically cuts her off and ignores her concerns, as he walks side-by-side with Rosenblum in front of her.

When the boss turns around to talk to Dana, he has a look of slight disgust on his face as he indicates to Dana that she should look at her blouse. Dana looks down at her blouse and is embarrassed to see there’s a stain from leakage of breast milk. It’s a moment that nursing mothers can dread because they know that there are sexist bosses and co-workers who think that pregnancy and childbirth make women less competent employees.

Viewers who’ve worked in newsrooms will also notice how realistic this scene is in showing the subtle but still noticeable ways in which people who aren’t white men are often treated with less respect in work environments that give white men the biggest leadership positions and the highest salaries. The scene also shows that Dana is the type of person who’s not afraid to speak up for herself, even if she doesn’t get the results that she deserves. In other words, Dana is no pushover.

As a frustrated Dana goes back to her office, she gripes to a middle-aged co-worker named Miriam (played by Susan Pourfar), who is Jordan’s godmother, about Rosenblum being dropped in on her assignment, probably because she knows that Rosenblum will get credit for a lot of the work that Dana did. Miriam is sympathetic, but she seems worried about how Dana is living. “Don’t isolate yourself,” Miriam tells Dana.

Miriam thinks Dana’s life should be about more than just going to work and going home. Dana reminds Miriam that she’s a single mother of a baby and doesn’t have time for much of a personal life. At home, Dana seems lonely and somewhat overwhelmed—not about taking care of the baby but by grief over the loss of Jordan’s father.

And sure enough, Charles appears to her in a dream, as a somewhat shadowy figure where he says, “Tell him everything, Ma.” (Ma was his nickname for Dana after she became a mother.) And the next thing you know, Dana is on her computer, typing out her memories of Charles for Jordan to read when he gets old enough to understand.

During her writing, Dana also includes quotes that Charles wrote in his “A Father’s Legacy” journal. Some of the quotes include: “Dear Jordan, I want you to know that it’s okay for boys to cry” because “crying can release a lot of pain and stress. It has nothing to do with your manhood.” This trip down memory lane triggers the flashbacks that are shown in the movie.

The majority of the movie then shows the ups and downs of the relationship between Charles and Dana, beginning when they met in 1998. Charles was a first sergeant in the U.S. Army stationed in Ohio. At this point in his life, Charles has been in the Army for 11 years. He grew close to Dana’s retired parents (played by Robert Wisdom and Tamara Tunie), who live in Akron, Ohio. Charles’ parents aren’t seen in the movie, but soon after he meets Dana, he tells Dana that he loves his parents, but he couldn’t get through certain things in life without the family-like support of Dana’s parents.

Dana’s parents treat Charles almost like a son. How this surrogate family relationship developed is not shown in the movie, which is told from Dana’s perspective. Dana’s strict father used to be a drill sergeant in the U.S. Army. Charles met Dana’s father through some kind of Army connection. After Dana meets Charles, she finds out that he’s so close to her father, that Charles calls him Pop. Charles tells Dana it’s because her parents have helped him with a lot of emotional support. She replies sarcastically, “You didn’t grow up with them.”

Dana tries to avoid visiting her parents as much as possible. It’s not that she doesn’t love them, but seeing her parents brings back painful memories of her childhood and reminds her of the type of life that she doesn’t want to have. It’s revealed in bits in pieces of conversations in the movie that Dana thinks that her parents have an unhappy marriage and that it’s her father’s fault because he has a long history of infidelity. Dana saw firsthand how this infidelity made her mother miserable but afraid to end the marriage. It’s why Dana has major issues with trust and commitment when it comes to romantic relationships.

In the spring of 1998, Dana goes back home to visit her family, which also includes her younger bachelorette sister Gwen and her younger married brother Mike. As an indication of how much distance she wants to keep from her parents, Dana stays in a hotel instead of her parents’ house during this visit. During a sibling conversation in their parents’ backyard (where Gwen calls Dana a “Type A” personality), Dana makes no apologies for her big-city, single life. “Men are luxuries, not necessities,” Dana comments.

Dana meets Charles when she stops by his place at the recommendation of her father, who clearly wants to play matchmaker. Charles is an illustrator artist in his spare time. (He likes to do portraits of people.) Dana admires his work and asks him who his favorite artists are. He says Claude Monet and Georges Seurat.

Dana, who considers herself to be a sophisticated intellectual, is immediately impressed. Charles also says that his life goal is to retire from the Army when he reaches the title of sergeant major, and then he wants to devote his time to painting art. After finding out about his love of art, Dana gives Charles an obvious chance to visit her in New York. She tells Charles that maybe he’d like to see a real Monet painting up close at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

There’s an immediate attraction between Dana and Charles, but she plays it cool overall, at first. Because Charles knows that Dana is staying at a hotel, Charles asks Dana if he can drive her to the Canedy family barbecue happening the next day. She agrees and is a little taken aback when he suggests that he pick her up at 9 a.m., which is hours before the barbecue starts.

Dana says yes, but she oversleeps and isn’t ready when Charles arrives to pick her up at scheduled 9 a.m. time. She’s very apologetic, he’s very understanding, and they head to a local diner to have breakfast. It all sounds like the beginnings of an ideal romance. But there are a few obstacles, as there are always seems to be in real-life love stories that are made into movies.

For starters, Charles tells Dana that he’s in the middle of a divorce. His estranged wife, who lives in Texas, has custody of their daughter Christina. (Christina is never seen in the movie.) Charles tells Dana that his marriage fell apart because he and his soon-to-be-ex-wife were too young when they got married, but he says that he loves being a father. Dana is accepting of this information, but she’s thinking at this point that Charles isn’t likely to become her boyfriend because they would have to do long-distance dating.

Things go well at the barbecue. Charles is polite, respectful and attentive to Dana. And, of course, family members happily notice that Dana seems to like Charles as much as he seems to like her. However, the realities of Charles’ divorce and single parenthood come crashing in on Charles and Dana’s first date when he leaves the barbecue early because he says he has a phone date to talk with Christina.

Another slight bump in the road comes when it takes nearly two months for Charles to call Dana again after their first date together. She’s slightly annoyed that it took him this long, but he explains that he waited until his divorce was made final. Dana likes Charles enough to give him a chance to get to know her better.

Dana and Charles end up dating, of course, and their romance kicks into high gear when he visits her many times in New York. On the first visit, she invites him to stay with her at her apartment. First, she says he can sleep on the couch. Then, she changes her mind and says he can sleep in the same bed with her.

Their courtship is sweet and passionate. Charles is not as sophisticated as Dana initially thought he was, but she doesn’t mind. For example, when he first visits her in New York, they go to an Italian restaurant for a dinner date. It’s there that Dana finds out that Charles doesn’t know what olive oil is because he asks her what it is when it’s put on the table. Dana also has to educate Charles on the differences between shows that are Broadway, off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway.

In addition, Dana thinks Charles could have a better sense of fashion. She notices that he likes to wear jeans and scruffy-looking athletic shoes. No problem. She buys him a designer suit as her first Christmas gift to him. He’s a little uncomfortable with wearing suits, but he knows that if he’s going to be in Dana’s life and the types of social events that she goes to, there’ll come a time when he’ll have to wear a fancy suit. And so, Charles accepts the gift when Dana goes with him in the store to see if the suit fits.

Charles also likes to tell corny jokes. Dana doesn’t mind that either. She thinks it’s actually a little endearing. For example, one of his running jokes is saying, “Guess what?” And then following it up by saying, “Chicken butt.” These are some of the little jokes that couples have that make Charles and Dana’s romance realistic and relatable to people who’ve had similar relationships. Meanwhile, Dana’s career at The New York Times is thriving, and she eventually gets promoted to senior editor.

It’s not all smoth sailing though for Charles and Dana’s relationship. Charles’ Army career means that he has to move around a lot. There are also instances where Dana gets upset because she thinks that Charles seems to care more about his Army colleagues than he cares about her, while he thinks she’s not understanding enough about his military responsibilities. These disagreements about his Army commitments cause the biggest conflicts in their relationship. After 9/11 happens and Charles is deployed to Iraq, the relationship gets put even more to the test.

“A Journal for Jordan” can be a little too slow-paced for some viewers, but the movie remains thoroughly grounded in reality. The fact of the matter is that in real life, a lot of romances go in stops and starts. People who want to see a movie with a lot of melodramatic contrivances found in too many romantic dramas will be disappointed. There’s no love triangle, no meddling best friend, no race to the airport to tell someone they want to make the relationship work. People who are tired of seeing these over-used clichés in romantic movies will be delighted that “A Journal for Jordan” can’t be bothered with these clichés.

What audiences will get is an authentic look at a romance between emotionally mature and responsible adults. Adams gives a charming and engaging performance that exudes all the real qualities that strong, independent women have when they allow themselves to be open and vulnerable to love. Jordan is equally charismatic in his own way in portraying this Army sergeant with a strong moral compass, a deep sense of loyalty and a romantic side that many people look for in a partner.

Charles is not a flashy Romeo but someone who says and does what exactly what he means. And that’s so much more important than “big talkers” who make grandiose promises that they have no intention of keeping. Charles and Dana aren’t perfect, but when they make mistakes or hurt each other emotionally, they try to make things right. And they accept each other for who they are. That’s true love.

“A Journal for Jordan” is a refreshing example of a movie that shows what a lot of middle-class African Americans are really like. It’s become tiresome to see African American romances depicted in movies and TV shows as relationships plagued by crime, poverty or drugs. The reality is that many African Americans are a lot like Charles and Dana, so kudos to everyone involved who helped make this true story into a movie.

“A Journal for Jordan” is also about another type of love story that’s just as important, even though it doesn’t get as much screen time in the movie: the love between a parent and a child. The scenes of Jordan as a 12-year-old have a deep emotional impact because it’s when he starts to become very curious about his father. Jordan’s questions bring up heartbreaking memories for Dana, who has been reluctant to tell Jordan the details of how Charles died.

Even though most of the movie is about the mostly happy romance between Dana and Charles, make no mistake: There are several scenes in the movie that are intended to be tearjerkers. Two of these scenes involve a bunch of red balloons that Charles had with him on a day that he and Dana were spending some time outdoors with Jordan. Another emotionally charged sequence happens during a trip that Dana and 12-year-old Jordan take to Washington, D.C.

The pace might drag a little in some areas of “A Journal for Jordan,” but if you care about these characters and what happens to them, then the movie is watchable from beginning to end. You don’t have to come from a military family to relate to what happens in the movie. Anyone who has treasured memories of a loved one can relate to this true story, which has been eloquently expressed in this inspirational film.

Columbia Pictures will release “A Journal for Jordan” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2021.

Review: ‘Voyagers,’ starring Tye Sheridan, Lily-Rose Depp, Fionn Whitehead and Colin Farrell

April 14, 2021

by Carla Hay

Lily-Rose Depp and Tye Sheridan in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers”

Directed by Neil Burger

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in a spaceship from Earth, the sci-fi drama “Voyagers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) who portray American scientists and crew members involved in exploring a new planet where human beings can possibly live.

Culture Clash: A power struggle erupts among the crew members, and it turns deadly.

Culture Audience: “Voyagers” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching derivative sci-fi movies that borrow heavily from dystopian young-adult novels with “survival of the fittest” themes.

Quintessa Swindell, Reda Elazouar, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe and Lou Llobel in “Voyagers” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Voyagers” is a disappointing space travel movie that’s the equivalent of being stuck on a pointless road trip with bickering 20-somethings from a bad soap opera. “Voyagers” is not an adventure story about exploring a new planet. The movie is really about a group of young people isolated on a spaceship in a bland ripoff of “Lord of the Flies.” The cast members’ overall serviceable performances can’t quite save “Voyagers” from the movie’s annoying “bait and switch” in its story, which has too many plot holes and not enough originality for it to be a truly enjoyable film.

Written and directed by Neil Burger, “Voyagers” begins with a captioned intro that explains why this space voyage is taking place: “As the Earth grows hotter, and drought and disease ravage the population, scientists look for a new planet—one that can support human life. In 2063, they find it. The human voyage to the planet will take 86 years.” Although the movie never says which government is spearheading this voyage, viewers can assume it’s the United States because all of the people involved have American accents.

Leading this experimental voyage is a scientist named Richard (played by Colin Farrell), who tells people in a meeting that the plan is to have 30 qualified crew members—all who were born and bred to live on a spaceship. These crew members (who were born from artificial insemination) will have a pre-determined number of children and grandchildren during this 86-year journey in outer space. During this time, these voyagers and their descendants are supposed to learn enough about this new planet to return to Earth and bring back this knowledge so that other humans from Earth can possibly start relocating to this new planet.

From the start, there are some major problems with the story. Richard is the only person who’s shown interacting with and educating the children who were selected to be born and and bred for this program. He has been involved in raising them since birth. The movie should have had more scientists and government officials involved in this training. Just because “Voyagers” is a low-budget independent film is no excuse for this lack of credibility. If you can afford Colin Farrell to be in your movie, you can afford to hire some more cast members to portray the people training the children.

The children, who are in the same age group, are first seen as 4-year-olds in a sterile spaceship simulation environment where they are solving puzzles on computers. Richard interacts with them while wearing a hazmat suit. He is kind and patient with the kids, who have deliberately been raised indoors their entire life. The reason for always keeping the children indoors is because if the kids knew what it was like to be outdoors on Earth, it could have negative effects on their mental health while they’re in outer space if they knew what they were missing on Earth.

There’s a scene early in the movie that completely contradicts what happens later in the story. During a teaching session, all of the kids are happy to see Richard when he enters the room. Most of the kids run up to him and hug him, and he hugs them back. But later in the story, when the children begin the voyage when they’re 24 years old, they act as if they’ve never expressed public displays of affection before. It doesn’t ring true at all, but it’s the basis for a huge turning point in the movie.

Richard, who is a bachelor with no kids of his own, has grown attached to these children. He’s so attached that he wants to go with them on this voyage. His supervisor Marianne Sancar (played by Veronica Falcón) is very reluctant to allow it. However, Richard tells her that he really won’t miss living on Earth at all. And the next thing you know, Richard is the only adult over the age of 30 who’s with the crew members who were bred for this voyage. Once Richard and the crew members live on the spaceship, he no longer has to wear a hazmat suit when he’s around them.

Here’s another problematic part of the story: No government would realistically allow a bunch of 24-year-olds who don’t have any life experience outside of a spaceship environment to be on their own to explore a new planet. It’s what would have happened if Richard had not insisted on going on this voyage too. Any scientific exploration like this one would require people who would know what it’s like to live on Earth (indoors and outdoors), to make informed decisions on whether or not a new planet could be inhabitable by human beings whose biology was wired to live on Earth through centuries of evolution. It’s basic science for any scientific exploration to have that comparison point.

The “bait” part of “Voyagers” starts off misleading viewers into thinking that these young people, who’ve been trained specifically to explore this new planet, will get to do this exploring in the movie. But no, here comes the “switch” part of the movie: “Voyagers” has absolutely zero screen time of these so-called explorers doing any exploring. It’s not really spoiler information to reveal this fact about “Voyagers.” It’s a fair warning to viewers that this so-called “new planet” is never seen in the movie. Instead, “Voyagers” is essentially a predictable and often-dull soap opera on a spaceship.

Out of the 30 young people who are the crew members, three are the main focus of the story. It’s telegraphed early on that these three are the main characters, in a scene with the future voyagers as 4-year-olds. They are the only three characters Richard is shown tucking into bed and calling them by their names when he says good night to them.

The three main characters at 24 years old are:

  • Christopher (played by Tye Sheridan), who is even-tempered and analytical.
  • Sela (played by Lily-Rose Depp), who is the group’s assertive and intelligent chief medical officer.
  • Zac (played by Fionn Whitehead), who is the group’s rebellious chief surveillance officer.

And because “Voyagers” is really a soap opera in space, you know what that means: love triangle. There are some other crew members whose personalities are given some notable screen time. They include:

  • Kai (played by Archie Madekwe), a mischief maker who likes breaking the rules.
  • Julie (played by Quintessa Swindell), a flirtatious engineer who has a mutual attraction to Kai.
  • Peter (played by Viveik Kalra), who becomes a rival to Kai for Julie’s affections.
  • Phoebe (played by Chanté Adams), who is the group member most likely to stick to the rules and protocol.
  • Edward (played by Isaac Hempstead Wright), a nerdy control room officer who’s the most “book smart” one in the group.
  • Anda (played by Madison Hu), a level-headed type who is good at negotiating.

All of the crew members except Richard are given a blue liquid called (unimaginatively) The Blue as part of their dining routine. Christopher finds out through some computer hacking that The Blue is really a drug that dulls human senses. It contains a toxin called T56j, which makes people docile and eliminates sexual desire and other sensual urges.

Zac is with Christopher when this information is discovered. Christopher then confronts Richard about it. Richard admits that The Blue is a medication that was given to the crew members to make them less likely to rebel or get distracted.

It’s also explained in the movie that the outer-space program doesn’t want the crew members to conceive children naturally. All conceptions are supposed to be by artificial insemination. It’s been pre-determined how many children and grandchildren each voyager will have, in order to prevent over-population.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t sit too well with Christopher and Zac to find out that their lives have been strictly controlled and manipulated by being given The Blue drug without their knowledge and consent. They decide to stop taking The Blue. And eventually, Christopher and Zac tell some other crew members that The Blue is really a drug to keep them complacent. And, of course, the word gets out to everyone else, and they also stop drinking The Blue.

Remember that scene of the cute and cuddly kids running up to Richard and hugging him? Well, the filmmakers of “Voyagers” want people to forget that scene, because (plot hole alert) they want viewers to think that these kids have now grown up to be people who don’t know what it’s like to express affection. It’s unclear how long the voyagers were taking The Blue, but it doesn’t matter because it’s not a drug that causes amnesia where they would forget childhood memories.

There’s a scene on the spaceship where Christopher sees Richard and Sela talking, and Richard has his hand affectionately on Sela’s shoulder, like a father would for a daughter. Christopher gets a little freaked out and acts as if Richard is one step away from being a sexual predator because Christopher can’t believe that someone is actually touching Sela in this way. When Christopher asks Sela in private if there’s anything inappropriate going on between her and Richard, she denies it, but Christopher doesn’t look completely convinced. It’s all just sloppy and contradictory screenwriting.

Keep in mind, these voyagers are the same people who, when they were children, were jumping up and hugging Richard and letting him tuck them into bed. It’s quite an unrealistic stretch that Christopher, now in his 20s, would suddenly act like he’s never seen Richard touch Sela in a fatherly way before, when Richard is essentially the only father these kids have ever known. By the way, this movie never shows the young voyagers being curious about who their biological parents are, even though Christopher mentions in a conversation that they’ve inherited physical and personality traits from their unknown parents.

After certain characters in “Voyagers” stop taking The Blue, the movie makes a big deal of showing them acting out as they lose their inhibitions. For Zac, that means a touch can’t just be a touch. When he touches Sela’s face affectionately, it quickly turns into fondling her breasts without consent. Zac and Christopher suddenly get the urge to wrestle each other a lot. And there are multiple scenes of the crew members running playfully through hallways, as if they’ve never done it before in their lives.

Through a series of circumstances, the voyagers also learn about violence. And the rest of the movie plays out as predictably as you think it would. Christopher and Zac go from being friends to being bitter enemies. And in true “Lord of the Flies” fashion, people take sides, and there’s a battle over who’s going to be in power.

And what about the mission to explore this new planet? That gets lost in the arguing and fights that take up almost all of the last third of the movie. And there’s some nonsense about a possible alien that’s invaded the ship, which is a fear that Zac uses to manipulate people to do what he wants.

While all of this childish drama is going on, no one seems to be operating the spaceship. It must be on auto-pilot, just like this formulaic, substandard sci-fi flick is on auto-pilot for almost its entire duration. Out of all the actors portraying the young voyagers, Whitehead seems to be the one having the most fun (probably because he’s playing a villain role), and he smirks it up to the hilt.

Unfortunately, the scenes in the movie where the voyagers have been taking The Blue drug require them to talk in almost-robotic monotones. And so, there are long stretches of “Voyagers” that are quite boring because the actors are supposed to be portraying “numb” people. Richard is the only character on the spaceship who maintains a strong sense of lucid humanity, but the power structure ends up changing on the spaceship, so Richard isn’t in the movie as much as some viewers might think he would be.

The cinematography and visual effects for “Voyagers” aren’t terrible but they’re not outstanding either. The movie’s production design for the spaceship isn’t entirely convincing. The interior rooms often just look like a shiny and sterile cafeteria, office building or lounge space. There aren’t many exterior scenes in the movie because the voyagers spend more time quarreling or goofing off inside than actually working outside.

You know that “Voyagers” is a terrible sci-fi movie because it cares so little about this mission to explore a new planet. Not once do any of the voyagers talk about any hopes or fears that they have about what they might find on this new planet. You’d think that people who were raised to be these pioneering explorers would be curious. But no, not in this movie. “Voyagers,” just like the space mission in the movie, was badly conceived from the start and should have been aborted.

Lionsgate released “Voyagers” in U.S. cinemas on April 9, 2021.

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.

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