Belated Praise of Pre-Quarantine Black Romance: ‘The Photograph’

(c) Universal Pictures

“I stumbled on this photograph, it kind of made me laugh/
It took me way back, back down memory lane/
I see the happiness, I see the pain/
Where am I? Back down memory lane”

– Minnie Riperton, “Memory Lane”

*[NOTE: I saw The Photograph during an advanced screening on Wednesday – 12 February at the Century San Francisco Center 9. Why am I just posting the review now? Because this pandemic thing has given me a semi-case of writer’s block (with some notable exceptions). Finally writing things I’ve had in the draft stage this year does a lot to shake those cobwebs.]

For a Black teenager in the ‘90s (as I was) constantly fed images of his people in some state of anger, fear, or both (from both Black and white creators), the film love jones was a genuine diamond-in-the-rough. To this day, I remember sitting in the half-empty auditorium and being enthralled by every frame of this quiet, realistic, “Black-on-Black love story” (to borrow a quote from James Earl Hardy).

I know the film isn’t perfect and – as all media should – has gotten reexamination in recent years. That doesn’t change the fact that to this day, hearing Dionne Farris’s “Hopeless” takes me back to a time when even I could feel optimistic about the possibilities of romance and relationships – especially for someone of my hue.

Mae (Issa Rae) and Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) trying to make it work. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

I wasn’t expecting for The Photograph to make that feeling come back, but I’ll be damned if didn’t do just that. It’s a film so unabashedly hopeful that its central couple will stay together that it’s hard not to root along with them. And, like love jones, it’s quiet. Silence is underappreciated in an era when Dolby Atmos is promoted at every multiplex (at least, they were when I last set foot in one… back in February). But The Photograph isn’t about loud, ear-splitting gestures. It’s about the quiet little moments that make all the difference.

It disturbs me to see so many outlets heaping praise on shitty flicks like the god-awful Queen & Slim, the misogynist Think Like a Man movies, or whatever minstrel piece of shit Tyler Perry squatted out this week. Watching a film like The Photograph shows that making a good Black film isn’t that hard – or do its creators just make it look easy?

The story is pretty simple: Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) is an up-and-coming reporter for The Republic doing a story about post-Katrina life for Black New Orleans folk. Whilst interviewing one, he comes across a photo of a woman named Christina (Chanté Adams). At the same time, Christina’s daughter Mae (Issa Rae) inherits a safe-deposit box from her late mother, whom she never really knew that well. With a mutual interest in a woman no longer living, Michael and Mae meet. It’s subtle, but there is a spark.

Sure, there are other aspects to the story – the pair’s mutual friends who have a “Will they?/Won’t they?” attraction – but The Photograph is about two quiet stories: the first being that of Christina and the love she lost, the other being Mae, Michael, and the romance they find.

Asia (Teyonah Parris) and Kyle (Lil Rel), still going strong. (Photo: Universal Pictures)

Now… I’ve never been to New York (in fact, I’ve long-since accepted that I never will), but even I know that it’s become the one city in the US more expensive than San Francisco. That’s why I was a bit taken aback by the sight of everyone living so well off, given their professions (how does Michael pull down a loft that phat as a journalist?). But it side-steps the usual “bougie-nigga”/Oprah mistakes of showing only rich Black people. In fact, no one in this flick is really rich – they’re just “doing well”, if that makes any sense. And they can easily catch cabs.

Besides, Christina’s story shows our people in a more working-class setting than the modern-day story; and it’s not to the detriment of either. Point in fact, in showcases just how far removed is Mae from her mother: the latter is limited in her choices in life and environment; the former has a myriad of opportunities that she will often pass up by choice (such as the obligatory third-act-break-up between she and Michael).

But the story, such as it is, lives and dies by character. Looking back over my notes, I recall laughing out loud at a scene in which a stranded Mae and Michael drink in the dark as they listen to Al Green. I found myself constantly hoping Christina would find a man worthy of her and a life that gave her peace. I wanted a spin-off film where we follow Michael’s brother Kyle (Lil Rel) and his family. I wanted to read Michael’s story about New Orleans.

I wanted to stay with these people. What better compliment is there?

Michael (Lakeith Stanfield) and Mae’s (Issa Rae) first kiss. (Universal Pictures)

To my mind, only two other recent Black films succeed in bringing the same quiet, delicate care to their characters – and both are by Barry Jenkins. Moonlight is sometimes thought of as a romance, but it’s more a coming-of-age drama about the trap of Black masculinity and the inability to live as one’s true self. If Beale Street Could Talk is centered around a couple and their love, but it’s ultimately a condemnation of the system in which Black folks just can’t win.

The Photograph brings the same soft-volume care to its story and characters, but it knows damn well that we need at least one reprieve from the constant gloom. Its aim is to give it to us. With all the reports of how relationships have either crumbled or strengthened under COVID-19 lockdowns, this film is a welcome reassurance that a win is possible.

GRADE:                                                            B

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