‘The Photograph’ (2020) | Movie Review

While every other film lover watched the 92nd Academy Awards this past Sunday, I decided to throw in my Blu-ray of James Cameron’s Titanic. All I could think about watching the courtship of Jack and Rose was how much I missed seeing romance on the big screen. Many point to the romantic comedy for this, which is having a mini-resurgence on streaming platforms, but I am talking about totally sincere, heartfelt romance. Love stories used to be a cornerstone of Hollywood cinema. Even in epics and action films, there would be a love story. Marvel half-heartedly includes a relationship here or there in their films, but none of them ever feel real. Remember how the Hulk and Black Widow love each other? Yeah, me neither. The closest to real, earnest romance in modern Hollywood filmmaking exists solely with sick teenagers, where a doomed first love guarantees pulling on your heartstrings, with the likes of The Fault in Our Stars or Five Feet Apart.

If romantic dramas are an endangered species, romantic dramas starring people of color are basically extinct, and the ones that do get made have to be about maintaining a romance within various injustices being done to that particular group, especially if they are Black. While these injustices do happen everyday around the United States, they are far from the only stories Black Americans have to tell. Enter The Photograph from director Stella Meghie, who also made a sick teen romance of her own with Everything, Everything in 2017. Few films so perfectly satisfy a craving you have, and that is exactly what The Photograph does, giving us a blossoming romance between two drop-dead gorgeous people possessing megawatt star charisma and deep, fully realized inner lives.

Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) works as a writer for a New York-based publication called The Republic where he is currently working on a story about the rebuilding of Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. He interviews a fisherman named Isaac (Rob Morgan) and becomes enamored with the photographs in his home, which were taken by the love of his life from decades ago that took off to New York without saying goodbye one day. Pivoting his story to the photographer Christina Eames (Chante Adams), he tracks down her daughter Mae (Issa Rae), an assistant curator at the Queens Museum, and the two share an undeniable spark with one another and start kindling a romance. However, Michael just broke off a long distance relationship and possibly moving across the pond to London for a new job, and just before the start of the film, Christina dies of cancer, which she never told anyone about, leaving Mae a letter to explain her story and why she was not a good mother.

That letter tells the story of Christina’s relationship with Isaac (played by Y’lan Noel as a younger man), and we see their romance that never fulfilled itself juxtaposed with Mae and Michael’s, who do not really know how to commit to starting theirs. This is not a case of commitment issues in the form of one or both of them seeing other people or anything like that. They are just two people who do not really know how to act honestly according to their feelings, falling back on work or just insecurities to avoid getting into something hard and fast they may not be able to maintain. With every word one says to the other about how they can’t work, you feel the heat of their passion for one another get even hotter.

Meghie and cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard shoot Rae, Stanfield, and the entire case as if they are the most beautiful people to ever walk the face of the earth, and quite frankly, they might be. A lot of cinematographers still struggle with lighting shades of skin color other than pasty white, but no such issue presents itself here. You can put close-ups of Issa Rae in this film up against any other glamor close-up from this history of Hollywood and see why she should be a movie star. Pair their gorgeously photographed faces with their unbelievable chemistry, and all you can think is, “Well, obviously these two people should be kissing right at this moment. Obviously. Look at them.”

Sometimes the back and forth of the two stories does not always transition perfectly, perhaps this is just because Michael and Mae are more dynamic characters or because the reveal of the Christina/Isaac story never feels like a mystery in the slightest. Still, that relationship brings a lot to the table, and Adams and Noel do have their own lovely chemistry. Seeing that story also gives a deeper felt sadness in Rob Morgan’s truly outstanding performance. Talk about a reliable character actor who can come in and just demolish every scene he is in, making every moment not just count but truly real. The two timelines also are beautifully bridged by the terrific jazzy, sexy score from composer Robert Glasper. Films like this typically rely on needle drops for their romance to attach familiar aural responses to better elicit an audience response (and there’s a couple here), but Glasper’s score really puts in the work without imposing itself on the film.

Now, I know I have been gushing about The Photograph, but the film is not without its faults. A couple story beats are rushed here and there, a few supporting characters aren’t completely developed. It’s not a masterpiece. However, the pleasure I took in watching a totally earned, gorgeous telling of a love story outweighs any quibbles I might have with the picture. When film critics lament the loss of the $20 million movie, films like The Photograph are the ones we mean (its budget was $16 million). The Photograph carves itself out a much needed place in the multiplex as a well-acted, well-made, thoughtful romance for adults. Please do not be an anomaly, and if somehow studios start making a few more movies like this, I hope they are at least half as good as this one.

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