Movie Review: ‘The Photograph’

Ebony Purks, Staff Purks

This past week, I saw “The Photograph,” directed by Stella Meghie. The film, released in February 2020, follows two heartfelt love stories: one between Mae, the movie’s protagonist played by Issa Rae, and Michael Block, played by Lakeith Stanfield, and another between Mae’s mother, Christina, and her lost love, Isaac Jefferson. Because the latter relationship is shown in flashback, the film is able to compare the mother and daughter’s similar quests for love, honesty and vulnerability.

Mae is an art curator at the Queens Museum, and Michael is writing an article about Mae’s mother, who was a famous photographer. Christina died unexpectedly from cancer, leaving Mae in a state of abiding hurt. Christina left a letter that explained secrets about her life. Mae reads the letters repeatedly throughout the movie to gain perspective on the hidden truths of Christina’s life. The death of Mae’s mother connects Mae to Michael, though she is disconnected from herself.

Mae and Christina’s love stories are juxtaposed through side-by-side illustration.

“What if I’m just like her?” Mae fears.

Her father, Louis, responds, “She wasn’t just your mother; she was a woman with flaws.”

“The Photograph” explores themes of strength in black women and specifically black matriarchs who have to be strong at their own expense. The film also explores how detrimental familial patterns get passed down. For example, Christina’s mother also died from sickness without her knowing.

Christina explains, “[my mother] didn’t want me to see her weak.” At one point, Christina writes, “I didn’t know how to love you except by showing you the arc of a woman.”

Despite Christina’s death, Mae wants to know her mother and finds that she shares good and bad similarities with her. Mae is trying to be a better woman and lover so as to not make the same mistakes her mother did. Most daughters aspire to be like their mothers, but, ultimately, they want to be better than them too.

Eventually, Mae breaks down after the combined weight of life, death, love and heartbreak crash down upon her. The film mirrors Christina’s story with Mae’s, but thankfully, Mae is able to free herself of the multi-generational consequence of withholding vulnerability. In the end, Mae breaks the curse of not loving people when you should. She allows herself to be vulnerable and honest enough to chase after Michael, whom she loves, unlike her mother with Isaac.

Overall, the movie is stunning. “The Photograph” feels like it is paying homage to all black romance films that have preceded it, keeping it original yet fresh. The cinematography feels personal, enchanting and romantic. The music feels intimate, like an ode to 90s black romance films. It is soulful and has a nostalgic feel despite being a new movie. The fashion was stellar. Combined, all of this makes for an aesthetically pleasing movie.

I highly recommend this movie. If you are a hopeless romantic like I am, you will love the movie whether you’re watching it with friends, a loved one or even by yourself. I would rate “The Photograph” four-and-a-half stars out of five. Go see it and fall in love.