Love and romance are integral parts of the human experience. However, romantic dramas in cinema starring Black people have been few and far between. Some of the most beloved have been Love Jones, The Best Man and Love & Basketball. Also, recent projects like Beyond the Lights, Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk have shown Black love. However, there have been limited films that solely focus on love and relationships between young Black people in the 21st century. In her New York City-based romantic drama, The Photograph, writer and director Stella Meghie is putting the spotlight on Black love stories.
The Photograph follows Mae Morton (Issa Rae), a museum curator grappling with the death of her estranged mother, a famed photographer. After uncovering a forgotten photograph in her late mother's safety deposit box, Mae embarks on a quest to unpack who her mother truly was. Her journey connects with journalist Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield), who is working on his own story about Mae's mom.
"I was 16 watching Love Jones on repeat," Meghie explained when Shadow And Act visited The Photograph set in New York City. "It was an adult, very sexy, intellectual, sophisticated kind of love. That film shaped me a lot. Love & Basketball was a big thing for me. Gina Prince-Bythewood is a definite inspiration. Hav Plenty as well."
The Photograph is a story that the Canadian-born director has been wanting to create for years. "I talked to Will [Packer] about a romantic drama like five years ago," she revealed. "I ended up doing my first film Jean of the Joneses and then Everything, Everything. However, I wanted to come back to this script. I finally ended up writing it a few years later after we spoke about it."
Mae Morton (Issa Rae) and Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield) in The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie | Photo: Universal
When Rae learned about Meghie's script, she knew that she had to be involved. "Stella directed an episode of Insecure," The Hate U Give actress explained. "I’d seen her films before and just loved what she did with our episode. The script just came my way and I loved the story. I've missed Back romance movies and thought that this was just so well written and a story that I wanted to see on screen. That’s what enticed me.”
Stanfield was also intrigued by Meghie's words on the page. “My manager sent me the story because he really liked it," the Atlanta actor explained. "We’d been talking about relationships and going through relationships and a lot of things in the script, in terms of getting together and breaking up, it spoke to what I knew to be my experiences in relationships. I thought it would also be a unique opportunity to see two Black people in love.”
Young Isaac Jefferson (Y’lan Noel) and Young Christina Eames (Chanté Adams) in The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie | Photo: Universal
Though there have been other films like the forthcoming Queen & Slim that center Black love, The Photograph's sole focus is Black romance. For The Weekend director, it was about seeing two dark skin Black people fall head over heels. "It was important for me to have a brown skin girl play Mae and have the same for Michael. Unfortunately, it's not seen a lot. As a Black woman, I felt like the onus is on me to do it."
Though Rae obviously fits the bill for Mae, this wasn't a role that she ever expected to play. “I was laughing when I got this role," the Insecure creator reflected. "When I got made up for it I just had to laugh because I said, 'They've got me out here being a Nia Long and I joked about that in Awkward Black Girl.' That was something really cool and flattering about that. I never imagined playing the object of affection. It’s also not how I operate, but I love those kinds of movies. Given that we haven’t had a lot of representation in that outside of someone like a Nia Long or even a Gabrielle Union, it’s just funny to picture myself in that type of role," she continued. "Little girl me dreamed to play that, and I get to play along with someone like Lakeith who is also so incredible. Mae’s not someone who leads with humor so that’s different. I’m like, 'Oh —she’s not going to make a joke out of this situation?' But that’s refreshing and fun."
For Stanfield, it was important to see a Black woman manning the ship of this project; It helped widen his perspective on love and relationships. "Men don’t allow themselves to see romantic films mainly out of fear," he reflected. "A woman's perspective on love is an interesting thing to think about because I'm always thinking about it from my perspective. Now I'm like, ‘Oh there’s another way to look at it.' Ever since I’ve worked with Ava [DuVernay], there's something about a woman running a set that I really like."
There is a narrative that Black women in heterosexual relationships with Black men cannot find passion in both their personal lives and careers. Rae loved that The Photograph pushes back against that. "That narrative is definitely perpetuated," she explained. "But, it’s not something that I’ve personally experienced with friends and things like that. It is hard because this is a different time. I think that there are expectations that men have and women have--if we’re talking about heterosexual relationships. I think the dynamic has shifted so much in the last 50 years that people are still trying to adjust. Our generation is more career-focused, we're not having kids as soon, and we’re not getting married as young. Priorities have shifted. We’re a working generation and I think all of that needs to be taken into account, but I don’t subscribe to those myths."
Asia (Teyonah Parris) and Kyle Block (Lil Rel Howery) in The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie | Photo: Universal
It was especially poignant to have the story set in a major city like NYC where residents often feel disconnected from one another. "I’m from California, but it feels very different in New York," Stanfield explained. "There’s a lot of people but it feels like people forget the simple things in life. You get to see a union happen in this film in a place where it seems like that doesn’t happen too often."
Mae Morton (Issa Rae) and Louis Morton (Courtney B. Vance) in The Photograph, written and directed by Stella Meghie | Photo: Universal
With the concrete jungle in the background and Black love in the foreground, more than anything, Meghie is making this movie because she feels like this is what the community needs. "I want to see this movie right now," she said. "Things go in waves and romantic dramas went away for a little bit in the studio system in place of romantic comedies. Then the rom-com got silly. But every day when I talk to my Director of Photography and Issa, I'm reminded that people want to see romantic dramas and intimacy. I'd do it again and again."
The Photograph is set for release in North America on Friday, February 15, 2020.
Photo: Universal Pictures
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
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