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The Photograph

Time to make a confession: I’ve been rather harsh on black-centric movies in the past. To be clear, I’m not talking about movies with black protagonists, made by black filmmakers, about subjects pertaining to racism and America’s history with slavery — I’ve seen and vocally supported quite a few of those.

No, I’m talking about romcoms, dramedies, thrillers, horror films, and anything with Tyler Perry’s name on it. The kind of movie that looks like it could’ve been made with a white cast, and it wouldn’t have made any difference. Cheap, lazy, disposable cinema made to pander to a certain demographic I’m not a part of. Then came the current ongoing racial protests.

A friend of mine (I’m sorry I can’t remember whom) alerted me to the concept that there’s more to being a black person than systemic racism. Indeed, black people have lives and emotions and aspirations just like anyone else, and they deserve to see those portrayed on the screen across a wide spectrum of genres, just like anybody else. While slavery and systemic racism are important issues that need to be talked about, we should still make room for the rest of… well, life.

And anyway, if a movie was made with a primarily black cast and crew, and it was made and marketed to look like a cheap and disposable trifle, maybe that says more about the greater film industry than the film itself.

So here’s The Photograph, a film that got solid reviews when it came out earlier this year. And of course it’s also a film with an impressive cast, led by the proven talents of Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield. Alas, because it looked like a pablum romantic dramedy (Complete with a Valentine’s Day release date. Gag me.), I slept on it. But in the spirit of learning to be a better ally, let’s give it a shot tonight.

(Side note: Only just now did I realize this film had been directed by Stella Meghie. If I had known this was a romcom that was actually directed by a woman, I might’ve made more of an effort to see it sooner.)

Back in the ’80s, Christina Eames (Chante Adams), was an aspiring photographer living in a New Orleans backwater, romantically involved with a chronically poor Army vet (Isaac Jefferson, played Y’lan Noel). In the present day, we meet Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield), a reporter who came to Louisiana to meet with Isaac (now played by Rob Morgan) to find a story about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

What Michael got was a story about a remarkable photographer who broke Isaac’s heart when she moved out to New York. How and why Christina moved to New York, well, that’s part of what we’re here to find out.

Incidentally, Christina herself has just passed away from cancer. Thus her belongings and old letters were left to her daughter (Mae Morton, played by Issa Rae). Trouble is, Mae and Christina were always distant for some reason, and Mae feels like she never really got to know her mother.

And then, of course, Michael crosses paths with Mae in the process of researching Christina, sparks get to flying and we’re off to the races. Thus begins a parallel storyline, as the uncertain Michael/Mae modern romance is juxtaposed against the doomed Christina/Isaac romance in the earlier time period.

First and foremost, we’ve got to start with the two most important factors in any romance: Its leads. I’m happy to say that Stanfield and Rae are on fire from start to finish here. They turn in perfectly fine performances on their own individual merit, and the chemistry between them is through the roof. From the very first time they meet, they’re so effortlessly charming with each other that I had no problem rooting for the two of them to get together in the end.

Moreover, it bears mentioning that Mae left her last boyfriend after he proposed to her, and her mom died a month ago from a cancer diagnosis that even Mae never knew about. Christina was never there for her daughter, only really opening up about her life and her feelings through postmortem letters, and that’s a lot for Mae to process. As for Michael, he just got dumped by his long-distance girlfriend of however many years, he’s unhappy with his current job at a small paper, and he’s applying for a job with the Associated Press out in London.

In short, these two characters found each other at an extremely unstable point in their respective lives, and neither one of them really knows who they are. This at once shows why the two of them need each other in this exact moment, and why their romance may crumble by the end of the running time. Beautifully done.

But then we have the matter of how the present couple is affected by the past. It’s pretty straightforward in Michael’s case: He listens to Isaac’s regrets about letting Christina go and he learns from the older man’s mistakes. Mae’s case is a bit trickier, as the similarities might be chalked up to coincidence, genetics, or lazy writing. Yet as the film continues, it starts to get increasingly obvious that Christina was messed up by her own mother, thereby making mistakes that got handed down to her own daughter. Mistakes that Christina herself didn’t have the nerve to try and set right until she had already kicked the bucket. Luckily, Mae is still alive to try and break the cycle, if she can figure out how.

Of course I’ve been a fan of Lakeith Stanfield ever since Sorry to Bother You, but I’m now firmly and devoutly a fan of Issa Rae. The Hate U Give, Little, and now this — three wildly different roles in three totally different movies, and she knocked every single one clear out of the park. Whatever she’s doing next, I’m there for it.

As for Y’lan Noel and Chante Adams… well, their chemistry is never quite that solid, but it’s still more than good enough to be getting on with. That said, it really is a case of comparing apples and oranges — with Mae and Michael, the tension is in wondering whether they’ll end up together; with Christina and Isaac, the tragedy is that we know they won’t. And when they need to sell that heartbreak, they do so brilliantly. Rob Morgan sure as hell sells it, I can tell you that.

The supporting cast is pretty solid as well. Courtney Vance is always a welcome presence, here playing Mae’s father. We’ve also got Jasmine Cephas Jones as the sounding board/best friend/sidekick to Mae — between this and “Hamilton”, I have to wonder if this is just how Cephas Jones is getting typecast. On the other side, we’ve got Lil Rel Howery as Michael’s brother and Kelvin Harrison Jr. as an intern at the paper where Michael works. The both of them provide capable comic relief.

To my surprise, the unsung hero of the supporting cast is probably Marsha Stephanie Blake as Violet Eames, Christina’s mother. It could’ve been so easy to play this character as a wicked witch, but Blake plays the character as a very clear antagonist while keeping well away from anything arch. It’s an extraordinary balancing act.

On a technical level, it’s fine. The camerawork is pedestrian enough, with a few subtle handheld flourishes, about what I’d expect from a romantic dramedy. That said, I was a little disappointed to see all the New Orleans shots drenched in gold lighting. Not that it’s a particularly bad look, I just think it does a disservice to such a famously colorful location.

The editing does a decent job of keeping the different time periods and storylines straight, though I’ve seen it done better. (The most recent adaptation of Little Women is still the high-water mark for that, in my estimation.) I’m sorry, but when a story takes place across two different time periods and they’re both made to look almost exactly the same, that’s going to cause problems.

The music is mostly comprised of what sounds like jazz music — it gets the job done, but I can’t help feeling like it might have been more at home in a noir caper. Also, I take serious issue with a scene at the half-hour mark, in which our two leads are trying to figure out their feelings for each other while a cover of “Tempted” by Squeeze plays. Bad enough to be so aggressively on the nose, but on the nose with such an overdone song?

But the big problem here — hands down, without any shred of possible doubt — is the plot. The story glides on rails, hitting every single expected story beat like clockwork. Seriously, when the third act is powered by a huge revelation that everybody saw coming from an hour away, there’s a sure sign the plot is FUBAR. No joke, if you only make it fifteen minutes into this one, you’ll already know exactly how this entire story is going to play out.

Then again, if you’re not going to do anything new, then you’d be better be damned sure to do it right, and that’s The Photograph to a T. This is a movie that aims for mediocrity and achieves its goal perfectly in all regards, except every last one of the actors (most especially Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield) are working their butts off and they sell the movie through sheer force of charisma. There’s really nothing to commend this film except for its two incredible lead characters, and with a straightforward romance like this one, that’s enough.

It’s amusing, it’s romantic, it’s sweet, it’s completely and totally forgettable. So if you’re looking for a cute and casual little romantic dramedy, I’d strongly suggest watching Emma. But if that’s too white and not modern enough for your tastes, I’d say The Photograph would be a suitable alternative.

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