Warm and engaging but never challenging, The Photograph is about to become essential self-care Sunday viewing.
One of the best scenes in The Photograph shows the two central characters in the corner of a chic, dimly lit bar, heads bent together as they debate who is the better rapper: Drake or Kendrick Lamar.
Mae, a quick-witted, well put-together museum curator played by Issa Rae, backs Drake – Kendrick’s politicism makes her feel guilty. “Everybody can’t be a change in the world,” she says. “It’s too ambitious!”
Her date Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), a laidback journalist, smirks knowingly at this, and the audience breathes out. That one line could be The Photograph’s mission statement, because this isn’t a story exploring trauma or the black American experience – important as those stories are. It is simply one of love, and the many emotional tributaries that run into it.
Two main plots entwine in The Photograph. In the present day, Michael is researching a story about a late photographer named Christina Eames, and in the process he begins a flirtation with Mae, the neglected daughter she left behind.
Their backdrop is a sleek, spotless version of New York – all marbled lofts and rain-slicked Manhattan streets – that juxtaposes beautifully with the flashbacks to hazy 1980s Louisiana, where we see Christina’s early life play out as she rails against the threat of a small, passionless life.
The script can be clunky at times, but a few predictable lines aren’t enough to take the shine off the stars – particularly Stanfield, whose lingering looks and lazy drawl are the stuff of romcom dreams. Brilliant, too, are the supporting cast, with a memorable Lil Rel Howery and Teyonah Parris playing Michael’s brother and sister-in-law, an example of the fun and friendship that long-term relationships can nurture.
Much of the film is set in the evening, giving it a sumptuous, sophisticated feel. Director Stella Meghie – who has worked with Rae before, directing an episode of her HBO series Insecure – told Oprah Magazine that when making a film, she always wanted it “to feel like you’re in a warm bath for a few hours”, and she more than succeeds here.
The Photograph is a visually stylish treat that puts black love front and centre, something still so rarely seen in Hollywood films. Engrossing but never challenging, it is destined to become a self-care Sunday staple for years to come.
Images: NBC Universal
The Photograph is in cinemas now
Meena Alexander is Stylist magazine’s features editor.