There’s an authenticity that radiates outward from every frame of writer/director Stella Meghie’s The Photograph. One thing that keeps being repeated in each of the three brief featurettes included with the home release of The Photograph is the simplicity of telling a love story honestly for Black audiences. There’s no manufactured drama, no extreme caricature, there’s just a timeless story told via modern means: one of love lost and love born anew. The film certainly is wide enough in philosophy that any audience can enjoy it, but the truth is that there are few films featuring a Black cast with Black principles behind the camera that aren’t just simple, modest, contemporary stories. Just as there is a market for stories like Sleepless in Seattle, there, too, is a place for The Photograph, one which does not forget its roots, even as we fall in love with it now.
For a spoiler-free review of The Photograph, head to the previously released theatrical review.
The past and the present converge when reporter Michael Brock (LaKeith Stanfield) interviews Louisiana fisherman Isaac (Rob Morgan), setting him on the path to meet Mae Morton (Issa Rae). Their connection instant, the two try to navigate modern dating dynamics made complicated by the recent death of Mae’s mother and an upcoming transfer for Michael. The past may be gone, but it’s rather over, offering some insight into how the two lovers can find their way forward.
In the theatrical review, I wrote quite a bit about how the thematic elements of The Photograph tied neatly into the metaphysical of what a photograph is. How, by the limitations of technology, a photograph can only capture what it sees and not the context of the object. This works neatly, subtextually speaking, as a means of exploring the conflict of the generationally separated characters — Mae and her mother, Christina (Chanté Adams) — who did not truly communicate until Christina’s passing. Instead, Christina opts to write Mae letters, which, upon their reading, the audience is transported to the past to see how Christina came to be the person Mae came to know. There is a sense that letters enable Christina the freedom that her photography does not, strange as that is given as it is her vocation and her passion, but letters are only limited by what someone remembers and what words they possess. A multi-media story is created from the included photographs and a lifetime of Christina’s works (Mae is well-versed in these as her job is Assistant Curator for a museum featuring a collection of these works) from which Mae obtains a full picture of who her mother was: her longings, her regrets, and her desire for Mae to not make the same mistakes. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but the absence of context can cripple instead of uplift, can inspire instead of caution. As philosophical concepts, Meghie’s use of photography as a means of capturing, but not explaining life, and letters which explain, yet not don’t, illustrate the inherent opposing duality of parent-child beautifully. Christina and Mae are cut from the same cloth biologically, just as letters and photography are forms of art, yet, function in differing ways. When put together, however, a complete story is formed, context is filled in, and, suddenly, the pain of loss Mae struggles to contend with becomes bearable via understanding.
But you didn’t come here to read my wax poetic on the nature of art. You came to find out more about the home release for The Photograph.
As previously mentioned, the home release features three brief featurettes which explore the making of the film. While I, personally, would’ve liked an exploration of the visual and auditory style of the film — the score and tunes accompanying the film help convey the similarity between periods wonderfully — the three included do allow the audience to learn a little bit more about the film itself. It’s no secret that a big selling point of the film was the depiction of Mae and Michael, as well as their respective individual families. Both are successful, intelligent, and driven individuals, and their families are fairly average. While this does not seem particularly spectacular, it’s a rare form of depiction in cinema for a Black family. As discussed in “Culture in Film,” there are plenty of films for general audiences (read: White) to seem themselves portrayed in, whereas the last film the cast and crew remembers seeing that bares any resemblance to The Photograph is 1997’s Love Jones. That’s nearly 23 years of cultural storytelling without something as simple as just a love story. Rae comments that, perhaps, The Photograph could be the start of a trend, which would be nice, though I wouldn’t look to her upcoming comedic film The Lovebirds for that. In the featurette “The Film Through Photographs,” Meghie explains the inspiration for Christina’s work and how she found and hired 21-year old Jheyda McGarrell to create the kind of art that would convey the same instincts and tone of someone with the same perspective as Christina. (Jheyda has more work on her Instagram, as well.) Both of these featurettes convey the type of controlled vision and ownership that Meghie executed in order to create an experience unlike what most love stories today centered on the Black community convey or look like. For those more interested in how Rae and Stanfield joined the production, “Shooting The Photograph” is where you want to begin. Not only do you get a sense of their feelings about the production, you also get a comprehensive understanding of Meghie’s process in the development and shooting of the film.
Though The Photograph didn’t blow my doors off, it’s hard not to fall in love with it. The look and sound of the film draws you in and the performances from Rae and Stanfield, particularly, will just knock you dead. The scene at the end of the film, seeing Stanfield react first with his body and then his face, I understood everything he felt in that moment, which, as Meghie explains in the featurettes, she wanted the experience to be universal, even if it’s specific to the Black community. In that, Meghie succeeds wonderfully. The Photograph is, first and foremost, a love story and it’ll catch you up in itself if you let it. With it being on home video now, you can.
The Photograph Bonus Features
- Shooting The Photograph (5:38)
- Culture in Film (3:49)
- The Film Through Photographs (2:24)
Available on digital April 28th, 2020.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD beginning May 12th, 2020.