Review: ‘The Marvels,’ starring Brie Larson, Teyonah Parris, Iman Vellani, Zawe Ashton, Park Seo-Joon and Samuel L. Jackson

November 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Iman Vellani, Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris in “The Marvels” (Photo by Laura Radford/Marvel Studios)

“The Marvels”

Directed by Nia DaCosta

Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and the fictional planets of Hala and Aladna, the sci-fi/fantasy/action film “The Marvels” (based on Marvel Comics characters) features a cast of racially diverse cast of characters (white, black and Asian) representing superheroes, regular humans and alien creatures.

Culture Clash: Earth superheroes Carol Danvers, Monica Rambeau and Kamala Khan team up to battle Kree leader Dar-Benn, who wants to become the most powerful person in the universe. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Marvel movie fans, “The Marvels” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and don’t mind watching superhero movies that have mindless dialogue, subpar visual effects and unimaginative plots.

Zawe Ashton (center) and Daniel Ings (in blue jacket) in “The Marvels” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“The Marvels” should be called “The Debacles.” This superhero disaster is proof that a bloated budget and talented cast members can’t save a low-quality movie that is an embarrassment to everyone involved. Tacky cartoons have better dialogue than this mess.

Directed by Nia DaCosta, “The Marvels” is not only one of the worst movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), but it’s also one of the all-time worst big-budget movies based on comic books. And that’s saying a lot when creatively bankrupt flops like 2022’s “Morbius” and 2022’s “Black Adam” exist. At least those other movies had a better sense of their cinematic intentions. “The Marvels” (a sequel to 2019’s “Captain Marvel”) is an irritating and erratic film that wants to be many different types of movies at once but fails at being any type of movie.

“The Marvels” is an onslaught of terrible screenwriting, shoddy visual effects, and fight scenes thrown into an already mindless plot. The fight scenes try to dazzle with intricate choreography, but all of it is wasted when the outcomes of the fight scenes are so underwhelming. This mishandled action happens so frequently in “The Marvels,” it makes you wonder if “The Marvels” filmmakers forgot the meaning of “suspenseful action.”

“The Marvels” also relentlessly punctuates almost every scene with weak jokes that often look and sound very fake and awkward for these characters, which are based on Marvel Comics characters. And this is not a joke: In one of the fight scenes, lead superhero Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel (played by Brie Larson), who’s supposed to be one of the most powerful and fearless Marvel warriors of all time, whines like a wimp, “Please don’t,” to her villain opponent who’s about to attack. It’s pathetic and a complete insult to the Captain Marvel character.

Audiences already know that most superhero movies have a plot about superheroes trying to save the world from an evil villain or villains. That’s not a problem if the story is well-crafted and has characters that can engage audiences. The problem is when a movie like “The Marvels” does the opposite. DaCosta, Megan McDonnell and Elissa Karasik co-wrote the abysmal screenplay for “The Marvels,” which renders all of the characters as shallow vessels to spew out cliché-filled conversations and unfunny jokes. There are 10-year-old kids who can write better dialogue than what’s in “The Marvels.”

In “The Marvels,” the chief villain is Dar-Benn (played by Zawe Ashton), a former scientist who is now a Kree politician leader obsessed with reclaiming supremacy for her Kree beings who live on her home planet of Hala. Captain Marvel, who is nicknamed The Annihilator by the Kree beings, is considered the ultimate enemy of the Kree, based on events that happened in “Captain Marvel.” In “The Marvels,” Dar-Benn is looking for two magical bangles (which look like long, metal braces) that give whoever wears both bangles the type of power to rule the universe. The beginning of “The Marvels” shows Dar-Benn with some of her Kree cronies on a desolate planet, where she finds one of the bangles.

The other bangle is in the possession of 16-year-old Kamala Khan (played by Iman Vellani), a Captain Marvel superfan, who lives with her parents and older brother in Newark, New Jersey. Kamala’s alter ego is the superhero Ms. Marvel. Kamala’s wide-eyed and perky mannerisms will either annoy or charm viewers. In the MCU, this character was first introduced in the Disney+ series “Ms. Marvel.” Kamala has a fixation on Captain Marvel that borders on unhealthy. Kamala’s room is filled with Captain Marvel memorabilia, and she draws comic strips with fantasies of Captain Marvel interacting with Kamala.

Meanwhile, astronaut captain Monica Rambeau (played by Teyonah Parris) is on an exploratory mission in outer space. The adult Monica made her first MCU appearance in the Disney+ series “WandaVision.” Monica’s history with Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel is that Monica is the daughter of Carol’s best friend Maria Rambeau (played by Lashana Lynch in “Captain Marvel”), who was in the U.S. Air Force with Carol. Maria created the Sentient Weapon Observation and Response Division (SWORD) to detect outer space aliens.

Maria and Carol were so close, Carol was like an aunt to Monica, who still calls her Aunt Carol. However, Carol and Monica have been estranged for years, for reasons explained in “The Marvels.” (And obviously, Carol and Monica reconcile in “The Marvels.”) Apparently, Carol doesn’t age, because she looks the same in “The Marvels” (which takes place in the early 2020s) as she did in “Captain Marvel,” which took place in 1995.

In “The Marvels,” Monica is working for S.A.B.E.R., which is described in “The Marvels” production notes as “a space station covertly acting as Earth’s first point of contact and defense from a rapidly expanding universe.” The inhabitants of S.A.B.E.R. are humans and Skrulls. (Kree and Skulls are longtime enemies.) Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is in command of S.A.B.E.R., but in “The Marvels,” he’s just a buffoonish side character who utters some of the worst wisecracks in the movie. It’s a huge downgrade from the badass Nick Fury in other MCU movies.

Monica comes across the uninhabited planet where Dar-Benn found one of the bangles. Monica sees a huge crater that looks like an excavation took place. She also notices a purple portal in the sky. Somehow, Monica seems to know that this portal is “leaking energy.” It’s explained later that Dar-Benn created this outer-space portal with her destructive ways.

The next thing that happens is Monica, Carol and Kamala are all quickly transported by laser beams to each other’s locations. Kamala ends up wearing Monica’s astronaut suit. Carol is teleported to Kamala’s home, much to the shock of Kamala’s mother Muneeba Khan (played by Zenobia Shroff), Kamala’s father (played by Mohan Kapur) and Kamala’s brother Aamir Khan (played by Saagar Shaikh), who is in his 20s. Carol is in the Khan household for only a few minutes before she quickly gets transported to the planet where Monica found the portal.

Carol can absorb light in her superpowers. Monica can see light through spectral vision. Kamala can turn light into physical matter. Through the portal, Dar-Benn has somehow “tangled our light-based powers,” says Monica, who adds, “We switch places whenever we use them.” All of this nonsense means is that there are several jumbled scenes where Carol, Monica and Kamala try to coordinate their powers, often to clumsy results.

One of the low points of “The Marvels” is when this cinematic train wreck briefly turns into a musical. It’s in a sequence where Carol, Monica and Kamala visit the planet Aladna, ruled by Prince Yan (played by Park Seo-Joon), who is smitten with Carol. Why is he so smitten? Because (surprise!) Carol married Yan but abandoned him, so technically, Carol is Aladna’s princess. And what happens when Carol returns to Aladna? People break out into song-and-dance numbers, including Yan and Carol acting as if they’re in Aladna’s version of a Disney musical. It’s as cringeworthy as it sounds.

As already revealed in a trailer for “The Marvels,” Carol’s beloved cat Goose (an orange-and-white domestic shorthair) is a superpowered Flerken cat who has the ability to make deadly tentacles spring out of her mouth. That gimmick is multiplied by featuring numerous Flerkittens, who gestate in exterior eggs that resemble brain matter and who have the same tentactle-spouting ability. It’s just an excuse to show kittens zapping other beings with tentacles, which is a novelty that has its limitations in an already flimsy story.

Dar-Benn is not much of a villain, because all she does is show up for some fight scenes. A memorable and effective villain is a true mastermind and a genuinely powerful menace who is difficult to defeat. In “The Marvels,” it looks like the filmmakers thought that Dar-Benn looks menacing just by scowling and flashing some of her gold teeth. Dar-Benn has a sidekick named Ty-Rone (played by Daniel Ings), who doesn’t say much and is utterly generic.

The acting performances in the “The Marvels” range from mediocre to unwatchable. Parris seems to be making the most effort to give some credibility to her Monica character, but this effort is buried in an avalanche of sitcom-like silliness that has plagued the worst Marvel movies. Carol should be renamed Cardboard, to describe her personality in “The Marvels.” As for Kamala, her starstuck ingenue persona becomes grating very quickly and will likely turn off many viewers. Kamala’s family members are relegated to showing up occasionally to act worried about Kamala.

The ending of “The Marvels” shows Kamala making plans to team up with a character who was introduced in Disney+’s “Hawkeye” series. There’s a mid-credits scene that also shows how “The X-Men” universe further will tie into the MCU. Incorporating more of “The X-Men” into the MCU was widely expected, ever since several “X-Men” characters appeared in 2022’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness,” one in a growing list of MCU sequels that are inferior to the origin movies. “The Marvels” has no end-credits scene, which is good for people to know in advance if they don’t want to spend any time watching all of “The Marvels” end credits.

What’s most disappointing about “The Marvels” is that it didn’t have to be this horrible, considering all the money that was thrown into this movie, and the fact that DaCosta and the principal cast members have proven in other movies that they are capable of making better films. “The Marvels” is the cinematic equivalent of a spoiled, lazy and stupid brat coasting on the success of superior predecessors, with the entitled attitude that the Marvel brand name alone means that people should automatically love it. You can put any name you want on “The Marvels.” It’s still time-wasting junk.

Marvel Studios will release “The Marvels” in U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023.

Review: ‘Candyman’ (2021), starring Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Teyonah Parris, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Colman Domingo

August 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Candyman” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Candyman” (2021)

Directed by Nia DaCosta

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago, the horror film “Candyman” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and a few Asians) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An up-and-coming conceptual artist (whose latest art exhibition explores themes of racism against black people) experiences the horror of Candyman, a legendary African American ghost representing black people who have been the targets of violent racism.

Culture Audience: “Candyman” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the 1992 “Candyman” movie, filmmaker Jordan Peele and horror movies that have themes of racial inequalities and social justice.

Teyonah Parris and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II in “Candyman” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The 2021 movie “Candyman” is not a remake/reboot of the 1992 horror movie “Candyman” It’s a very worthy sequel that takes a more creative and more socially conscious approach to race relations and racist violence than the first “Candyman” movie. The 2021 “Candyman” somewhat sputters out toward the end, almost like the filmmakers ran out of ideas of how the story should conclude. But most of the movie strikes the right balance of paying homage to the original “Candyman” while coming up with its own clever sequel story.

The fact that the 2021 “Candyman” movie is a sequel, not a remake/reboot, is hinted at in the movie’s first trailer, which briefly features Vanessa Estelle Williams, who was a cast member of the original “Candyman” movie. She makes a non-flashback cameo in the 2021 “Candyman” that is memorable and not too surprising, considering her character’s story line in 1992’s “Candyman.” And there’s another non-flashback cameo from another original “Candyman” cast member that is supposed to be a sudden plot twist, but this person’s appearance is not really a surprise. It would only be a surprise if this person wasn’t in this sequel.

One the main differences in the 2021 “Candyman” movie and the 1992 “Candyman” movie is that the latter film now has diversity in the race and gender of the writers, producers and directors. The 1992 “Candyman” had only white men as the director, writer and producers. Meanwhile, 2021’s “Candyman” has an African American woman as the director/co-writer (Nia DaCosta) and an African American man (Jordan Peele) as a co-writer/producer.

DaCosta and Peele co-wrote the 2021 “Candyman” screenplay with Win Rosenfeld, who is one of the producers of the film. Ian Cooper is the other producer of 2021’s “Candyman.” Peele was the first black person to win an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay; it was for his 2017 horror film “Get Out.” He has said in many interviews that he wants the horror movies that he writes and produces to explore themes of racism and race relations.

Peele was originally going to direct this “Candyman” sequel, but instead handed over the directorial reins to DaCosta. “Candyman” is her second feature film, and it shows that she has immense talent, especially when it comes to crafting visuals that are perfectly suited for the story. It’s rare for a horror movie directed by a woman of color to be released worldwide by a major studio. Let’s hope that “Candyman” is a step in the right direction for more opportunities to be opened up to talented and qualified women of color directors for horror movies, a genre that is overwhelmingly dominated by white male directors.

People don’t need to see the 1992 “Candyman” to understand the 2021 “Candyman” movie, which does an excellent job of recapping and explaining the original “Candyman” film. Candyman is a mysterious and vengeful ghost of an African American man who died because of racist violence. Both movies takes place in Chicago, but the themes in both films speak to universal and ugly truths about how racism is usually the reason why black people are harmed by people of other races.

In the 1992 “Candyman” movie, Candyman’s real name was Daniel Robitaille (played by Tony Todd), an artist/slave’s son who was murdered by a racist white mob in 1890. Why was he murdered? He and Caroline Sullivan, the daughter of a white aristocrat, fell in love with each other, and she got pregnant. Daniel met Caroline because her father had hired Daniel to paint her portrait.

Before he was murdered, right-handed Daniel’s right hand was amputated. As a ghost, he now has a hook where his right hand was. The angry mob of people who killed Daniel covered him in honey and unloaded a swarm of bees onto him. The ghost of Candyman is supposed to appear when someone looks in a mirror and chants “Candyman” five times. If there are bees nearby, that means Candyman could be somewhere close.

In the 1992 “Candyman” movie, university graduate student Helen Lyle (played by Virginia Madsen) is researching the Candyman legend for a doctorate thesis. Candyman is summoned, and he ends up wreaking havoc in Helen’s life, as she is blamed for murders that Candyman committed. In the movie, Williams portrays a single mother named Anne-Marie McCoy, whose baby son was kidnapped. Anne-Marie lives in Chicago’s low-income Cabrini-Green area, where many of the African American residents believe that Candyman is real.

One of the criticisms that the original “Candyman” got was how a movie that was supposed to be about an African American ghost haunted by racist trauma instead centered the story on a white woman who was being blamed for a black man’s crimes. In addition, there was a sexual component to why Candyman specifically targeted Helen (it’s explained why in the movie), as if Candyman’s main priority was to go after a white woman as a sexual conquest. It played into the same racist stereotypes that got Candyman murdered.

The 2021 “Candyman” movie attempts to remedy some of these problematic racial depictions, by making toxic people the targets of Candyman’s wrath. There’s a middle-aged boss who abuses his power by sleeping with his willing young adult female interns, because he implies that he’ll give them career rewards if they sleep with him. There’s a racially condescending art critic who has no problem exploiting black people’s pain in art if it means she’ll get some glory from writing about it. There’s a small group of “mean girls” in high school who bully an African American female student. And, not surprisingly, racist white cops are the biggest villains in the story.

In the 2021 “Candyman,” up-and-coming conceptual artist Anthony McCoy (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) decides to make the Candyman legend the theme for an art installation that is part of a gallery display. Anthony’s live-in girlfriend Brianna Cartwright (played by Teyonah Parris) is a curator at the gallery, which is owned by her boss Clive Privler (played by Mike Davis), who is very impressed with Anthony’s talent. Anthony hasn’t been able to make money as an artist for quite some time, so this gallery exhibit is a big career boost for him.

Before he creates the art installation, Anthony does more research into the Candyman legend by going to the places in the area formerly known as Cabrini-Green, where Candyman was known to haunt. In real life, the Cabrini-Green housing project’s buildings were torn down from 1995 to 2011, to make way for gentrification. While in the former Cabrini-Green area, Anthony gets stung by a bee on his right hand.

Anthony also meets someone named William Burke (played by Colman Domingo), who claims to have seen Candyman. It happened when William was about 11 or 12 years old. Back then, William went by the name Billy (played by Rodney L. Jones III), who grew up in Cabrini-Green.

Billy first saw this man named Sherman Fields (played by Michael Hargrove) literally come out of a hole in the wall of public laundry room to offer William some candy. (It’s one of the creepier scenes in the movie.) At the time, someone was going around the neighborhood giving kids candy that had razor blades hidden in the candy.

Did Sherman do the same thing to Billy? That question is answered in the movie. But it’s enough to say that a sketch of Sherman is on a “Wanted” poster that the cops have posted in the neighborhood. Billy is frightened by this stranger and sees him as Candyman. Billy yells for help. Some patrol officers who were staked out in their car nearby storm into the room to rescue Billy and arrest Sherman. Things do not end well for Sherman, an unarmed black man surrounded by white police officers.

It’s not spoiler information to say that the 2021 “Candyman” movie takes the approach that several black men who were murdered by angry and racist white people could become Candyman. William says in the movie: “Candyman is how we deal with the fact that it’s happened—that it’s still happening.” At another point in the movie, William says, “Candyman ain’t a ‘he.’ Candyman’s the whole damn hive.”

“Candyman” also has plenty of social commentary on gentrification. Cabrini-Green has been renamed the North Side, which is the home of upscale residential buildings that were developed as low-income people were priced out of the neighborhood, and higher-income people (usually white) moved in. Anthony and Brianna live in one of these upscale high-rise buildings.

Brianna comes from a cultured and educated family, so her background is very different from Anthony’s background. But that doesn’t mean she had a perfect childhood, because she’s haunted by a childhood tragedy that’s revealed in this movie. Brianna’s openly gay and sassy younger brother Troy (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) provides much of the comic relief and “real talk” in the movie. He has a new-ish boyfriend named Grady (played by Kyle Kaminsky), who is as laid-back as Troy is energetic.

Troy is the one who actually tells Brianna and Anthony the legend of Candyman. It’s in an early scene in the film where Anthony and Brianna have invited Troy and Grady over to dinner for a small housewarming celebration, since Anthony and Brianna have recently moved into this loft apartment. Brianna scoffs at the idea of believing in ghosts, while Anthony is intrigued. Once he hears about Candyman and looks further into Candyman stories, he’s inspired to make it a theme for his current art installation. And it’s about time that Anthony gets paid for his work, because Troy is starting to disapprove of Anthony being constantly broke while Brianna has to pay all of the couple’s bills.

Brianna, Troy and some of the black people who interact with them at the art gallery represent the educated African Americans who too often are overlooked or underrepresented in American-made movies. The 1992 “Candyman” movie had some of this representation with Helen’s best friend Bernadette “Bernie” Walsh (played by Kasi Lemmons), who was also Helen’s partner in writing their doctoral thesis. However, the rest of the black people in the first “Candyman” movie were working-class or poor people from the ghetto.

Brianna and Troy are immersed in the art world. Their late father Gil Cartwright (seen in a flashback and played by Cedric Mays) was an artist. Brianna also mentions at one point in the movie that up until Troy started dating Grady, Troy had a pattern of dating European artists. The movie shows what often happens when black people have to navigate in an industry dominated by white people, some who are often racially condescending, racially insensitive or downright racist when it comes to judging people who aren’t white.

The snooty art critic Finley Stephens (played by Rebecca Spence) represents this entitled mindset of white supremacy. When she first sees Anthony’s at installation at the gallery, she dismisses it as mediocre and trite depictions of racial injustice, possibly because what she sees in the art installation makes her uncomfortable. But when certain murders happen and start to be linked to the Candyman legend, Anthony’s art gets a lot of media attention.

And suddenly, Finley changes her tune. She praises Anthony for being a visionary and arranges to interview him for an article. It’s an example of how some white people who are media influencers only seem to care about up-and-coming black artists when those artists are getting attention from media outlets that have a mostly white audience. When Finley interviews Anthony, more of her racial condescension is on display.

“Candyman” is a visually compelling movie that makes use of shadow puppetry to tell parts of the Candyman story. It’s a better alternative than using live actors to re-enact the racist violence that’s in the movie. DaCosta brings a confident tone to her horror storytelling, which remains grounded in realism, even as supernatural occurrences are happening around the characters. The first “Candyman” movie had some over-the-top hokey moments, but the 2021 “Candyman” movie never lets you forget that racist violence is a real-life horror story for too many people.

There are also some gruesome but realistic-looking visual effects and makeup, especially when Anthony’s bee sting turns into an alarming infection that spreads through his right arm and beyond. Musically, the 2021 “Candyman” movie score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe (also known as Lichens) skillfully builds off of Philip Glass’ memorable score for the 1992 “Candyman,” including Glass’ haunting piano refrain that has become the franchise’s musical signature. Violence and gore are expected, but they aren’t gratuitous or exploitative in the 2021 “Candyman” movie. The point of the movie is to show that racism and revenge for racist crimes create a vicious cycle where there are no real winners.

The casting of this “Candyman” film is top-notch. The result is acting that is superior to the average horror movie. Everyone plays their roles well, with Abdul-Mateen, Domingo and Stewart-Jarrett as particular standouts. But realistically, no one in this cast is going to be nominated for Oscars because the acting isn’t Oscar-caliber. And this “Candyman” movie could have had more speaking roles for Asians and Hispanics.

The plot starts to get a little messy in the last 20 minutes of the film. Now that viewers know that several people could be Candyman, there could be an untold number of “Candyman” sequels. However, future “Candyman” sequels are better served by limiting the Candyman character to being depicted by just one person per movie and giving that person an interesting character arc. Otherwise, too many Candymen in a movie can spoil the story.

Universal Pictures will release “Candyman” in U.S. cinemas on August 27, 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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