Film, Film Review

REVIEW: The Photograph (2020) Dir. Stella Meghie



Not just a series of stories– An atmospheric shift.

To begin, there are many ways to describe what this film is:

This is a love story; A film about art and romance.

It is a story about one woman learning to understand her mother, posthumously, through her writing.

It is about the tug of war between devoting oneself to professional aspirations or to meaningful relationships.

It is about falling in love and imagining being with someone forever. It is also about courage and the suspension of fear.

It is an intensely romantic film, and at the same time, one which is calmly alluring and just generally beautiful to watch, whether you are in a romantic relationship yourself or not.

It is a movie with incredible talent behind it; Issa Rae as producer and star, Lakeith Stanfield, Stella Meghie, Rob Morgan, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lil Rel Howery, just to name a few that I swooned at or was impressed by.

It is another brick toward the growing castle of content that is being created by and for black and brown people, along with allies, and the script, performances and direction make it in and of itself is a beautiful thing to see.

The story opens onto a woman being interviewed. The interviewer is offscreen and a child is heard in the background.  This interview clip is brief, then we move to the present day where we catch up with the daughter of the interviewee, Mae, who is all grown up living in New York. She has received news of her mother’ passing, along with a letter from her mom which she revisits repeatedly throughout the film, as she learns the story of who her mother was more in depth.

Simultaneously, a journalist from New York, Mike, visits Louisiana to meet an ex-lover of the famed photographer Christina Eames for an article he is to write. Mike ends up contacting Mae, Eames’ daughter, to ask further questions about Eames, and then the romance begins.

Both Mike and Mae learn about what is described as “the arch” of Christina’s life through her photography, her relationships and the letters she left to Mae. They learn as they fall in love that there is much to negotiate with one another and the audience sees Mike and Mae mirror Christina and Issac’s affair as they struggle to navigate their desires to be together as well as their aspirations in life.

What this film is is very lovely, but what this film DOES is absolutely also of note: it creates an atmosphere of vulnerability in the theater, one which allows us as viewers to melt into our feelings.

We are cradled by the story which is told with such authenticity and care, and through this we can fully cathect or invest in the story with confidence that we will not leave emotionally wounded.

In the past few years, and perhaps further back than my film knowledge goes, there have been many films that depict the stories of people of color and many of them revolve around trauma. I have found it to be true that in contemporary stories being told in regards to black and brown bodies, it seems rare that character on character violence is absent or even peripheral in the plot. Maybe I am watching only the most intense or dramatic films, but I have not seen many movies, especially those being released widely, which take this level of care with the individuals portrayed.

Devoid of character on character violence, this film is a chance for us (audiences of color, black audiences, brown audiences, etc.) to relax and enjoy. The enjoyment is not limited to these groups of people, but for myself as a light skinned black viewer, I felt beautifully affected by it.

As an audience watching this film, we both root for the romance on screen and are swept up in it as if the destined path of the star crossed lovers on screen is also a path for us–we are all inside of love as the characters fall deeper for one another on screen.

Courage is imbued in the storyline. The main characters are challenged to be honest and vulnerable with one another swiftly and throughout the story. As Mike and Mae learn of Christina and her lover Isaac’s relationship, they, and we as onlookers, see that the arch of their story is so much about both individuals looking for the courage to tell each other exactly what they want, and the courage to go after what they want.

We learn, as the modern lovers do, that the courage to fight to be with (be around, spend time with, etc.) those we have deep feelings for is paramount. For Mae it is terrifying to tell someone, i.e. Mike that she wants to spend all of her time with him, for the obvious but relatable fear of rejection. For Mike it is terrifying to admit his temporal restrictions to Mae; to tell her that he may not be where she needs him to be when she needs him there, also for fear that this may be a dealbreaker for her.

But the courage piece really hit a chord with me in feeling involved in the romance. There is a courage that is necessary to allow oneself to feel loving feelings. This is backed up by science, as what we describe as “love,” particularly early feelings of love, is connected to a cocktail of dopamine, cortisol, and adrenaline releases in the brain and make us feel both euphoric and stressed, and maybe a little bit desperate for the attention of our object of affection. So the courage required from a person who is dealing with a surge of loving emotions can be tremendous. The task of showing authenticity and being forthcoming toward an object of one’s affection is staggering.

Perhaps the most important takeaway from this film, and the most enjoyable aspect for me, was this feeling that I was being invited to be vulnerable long enough to relax into my own squishy warm jubilant and exciting feelings of love and romance. Despite the fact that I am not in a romantic relationship (apologies for the overshare/single gang!) and the fact that I was not on a date (I went to see the movie with my sister/familial love is valuable too!), I still felt an allowance to indulge in romance in whatever way might be right for me. I walked away with an overwhelming feeling that I was and am deserving of the gushy romantic goodness that was portrayed through the story.

And I recognized the atmosphere in the room several minutes into the film, even before the main characters meet, when I heard what I can only describe as lip noises and thought it was a strange choice of ambient sound but quickly realized it was not coming from the speaker. Instead it was from the teenagers making out in the seats next to me. The film had barely begun, but the sensuous atmosphere had descended and took hold almost immediately.

It felt like the movie asked us to consider our own bliss in our lives, and to invite that in. It implored us to have the courage and audacity to see black love on screen, and to see it in our own lives; whether that be loving our romantic partners, loving our parents or our children, or even loving ourselves and being thoughtful and tender with all of these individuals. That is why I love this film.

This film is one to watch, and rewatch!

Describing it as a story only about young love would cheapen it, as most stories that we tell as humans revolved around this. It is not only a story about love versus a professional life, a trope we see again and again in stories we tell about women. This film discusses the arch of a story: the arch of these women’s lives; the arch of these people’s lives; the arch of these black people’s lives; and in turn, the arch of the story of our own lives as viewers.

The soulful and contemplative Jazz and R&B heavy soundtrack, very much worth checking out even if you don’t plan to see the film, is imbued with a lightness and softness that invites sensuality into play. A lovely backdrop to a gorgeously tender story that engages the wandering hearts in all of us.

The Photograph
Dir. Stella Meghie
106 min

Now playing at many big chain theaters, where 20 minutes of trailers give you enough time to get snacks and the seats big enough to fit the whole family!

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