Following the death of her famous photographer mother, Mae (Issa Rae) is left a letter and a photograph that present a number of unanswered questions for her. With the help of journalist Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield), she hopes to unearth some of the secrets that her mother had hidden away, but in the process the two find an intimate connection themselves. With her mother’s memories flooding into the present and Michael’s job aspirations pulling them apart, they search for something that is theirs and theirs alone, regardless of practicality in the modern world.
It is important to point out that The Photograph is by no means a romantic comedy, but much more a romantic drama with humour infused into it. Although it is directed by Stella Meghie, it is Stanfield and Rae who take the helm, but that is not without the support of a historical side story that injects purpose and conclusiveness to the overarching narrative. Stanfield and Rae are a reasonable match onscreen, the former oozing a lovable yet suave aura that suggests he was created to appear in such a role and Rae presenting herself as a radiant beacon of hope. But unfortunately the writing lets these two characters down when the final curtain falls. Mae and Michael are clearly written to have a greater purpose in life than simply falling in love and living happily ever after – and rightly so, since we have certainly seen that all before – but this ultimately means that their connection simply relies on the characters’ will to “make it work”, which as well as being a little clichéd, barely holds together.
What proves more interesting is the investigation into Mae’s mother’s past, and the actions that lead to certain consequences. We meet Christina (Chanté Adams) when she finds herself cooped up in rural Louisiana, her only solace her lover Isaac Jefferson, played young and old by Y’lan Noel and Rob Morgan respectively. And even that relationship is being suffocated by her mother. This soul-searching look into the past could be treated as the central premise of the story, and at times the viewer’s yearning that it was brings into doubt whether the tenets of the film’s formulation are even necessarily required.
The Photograph is, however, a beautiful, stylish film to look at, taking advantage of its momentary swings back to historical moments in Christina’s life, washing the screen with filters and countering this with a cleaner, more modern art-deco approach in the present day. With a budget of $16 million, there is a natural freedom that can be taken in filming at real locations and genuinely stunning environments. An African American love story across two time periods, the film embraces the soul of New Orleans when its characters visit the same bar some thirty years apart, acting as a beautiful ode to the past. It is these forks in the road, these detours that send the characters and the audience into a wonderful time capsule whirlwind and prove the most memorable moments in the movie.
The film works, there is no doubt about that, but there is a distinct lack of risk in the story that fails to elevate The Photograph to the next level. The stakes are never too high for Stanfield and Rae, meaning that even when the conclusion approaches, the viewer is not bothered about which direction the characters will take. Both characters have better relationships with their co-workers than with each other, and you are left wondering if their bond is strong enough to last forever. It’s cheesy for a film to make you believe in such things, but surely there has to be an inkling that it will, right?
The Photograph is released nationwide on 6th March 2020.
Watch the trailer for The Photograph here: