There has been such a void in Black Romance dramas that we didn't realize how much we were craving one until The Photograph hit us in the face.
Though we still cling to our favorites, such as 1997's Love Jones and 2000's Love & Basketball, Black romance on screen is nearly as old as cinema itself. The earliest surviving movie depicting Black intimacy is 1898's Something Good — Negro Kiss, a 29-second silent film. Since then, the romance drama category has taken off in Hollywood with timeless films like Casablanca and Titanic. Still, seeing Black people in these kinds of narratives is a rarity.
In 1964, Nothing But a Man, though not widely seen, made a powerful impact on cinema. Set in Birmingham, Alabama, it follows the romance of a railroad worker and a preacher’s daughter, played by Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln. The film showcases a Black romantic drama in a way that isn’t packaged for the white masses, as has been implied of 1943's Stormy Weather or 1954's Carmen Jones. Following Nothing But a Man, films like Mahogany came to be in the 1970's. However, it wasn’t until the 1990's that a slew of romantic dramas, including The Best Man and Waiting to Exhale, or romantic comedy Boomerang began to take center stage. Yet, in the past 20 years, there have been only sprinklings of Black intimacy, sex and relationships on screen, heteronormative or otherwise, especially in mainstream cinema.
Though we still have far to go when it comes to depicting the totality of Black life on screen, Stella Meghie’s The Photograph adds to the canon of Black Love on screen and shows that Black sensuality, romance and love stories can be beautifully illustrated without the backdrops of financial hardships or jilting trauma. The Photograph stars Issa Rae as Mae, a woman who is coping with the death of her estranged mother, Christina (Chanté Adams), a famed photographer. As she begins to pack up her mother’s apartment, Mae discovers a photograph and a letter providing clues into who her mother really was. On her journey to unspool her mother’s past, Mae crosses paths with Michael (Lakeith Stanfield), a journalist with his own curiosities about Christina’s life.
Mae and Michael connect over romantic dinners and debates over musical preferences. As their love story forms, with very real conflicts and dilemmas, the audience falls for them too. The Photograph moves at a leisurely pace, prompting a 21st-century audience to slow down and indulge in the courtship. This is a softness and deliberateness that is not often given to Black women in leading roles, certainly not when it comes to modern screen depictions of relationships in present-day New York City.
There is more than one romance in The Photograph. As Michael and Mae’s relationship unfolds in the present, we flashback to Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana in the 1980s, watching Christina connect with Issac (Y’lan Noel), a serious but loving gentleman content with his quiet life. In contrast, Christina dreams of a big, fun and vibrant career doing work that she loves. Typically, flashback sequences can be corny and only add fluff to dramatic films but that isn’t the case here. As Mae reads her mother’s words on paper, Christina’s life swirls on the screen in the sticky hot Louisiana heat of the 1980s. Adams is magnificent, sensual and unyielding as a young Christina; a woman determined to make a mark on the world amid any obstacles that might stand in her way, even love. Moreover, in the present, Michael is privy to the loving marriage that his older brother Kyle (Lil Rel Howery) has with his wife Asia (Teyonah Parris). Their love is a solid depiction of blissful contentedness and the happy chaos of parenthood.
The Photograph is lush and indulgent both in its cinematography and its eloquent (and very Black) dialogue. From the chocolate bedding in Mae’s apartment to the lingering shot of the gold chain necklace around Michael’s neck, the whole movie is a vibe. Meghie is also careful to elevate issues that can seep into relationships and why loss so often sits at the core of life’s regrets. Through Christina’s story, we are reminded of the secrets that Black women keep, protecting ourselves and the generations of Black girls that come after us. Additionally, the depiction of Black male accountability is profound here. In moments when Michael leans towards past destructive relationship patterns, his brother is there to call him out. Furthermore, in the present, an older, wiser Issac (portrayed beautifully by Rob Morgan), reflects on life’s timing, wearing years of pain and love on his face.
WATCH: LIL REL ON BLACK MEN HOLDING EACH OTHER ACCOUNTABLE IN 'THE PHOTOGRAPH'
Like Nothing But a Man and Love Jones, The Photograph is a gorgeous slow burn, colored with the sounds of Lucky Daye, Anita Baker and Luther Vandross. The film allows the many seasons of love to be sprinkled throughout. With this movie, Meghie has given dark skin Black people in particular, our due: that we are worthy and deserving of romance and connection. This movie is recognition. It’s a realization that you can desire and have that rare spark that sizzles in your spirit when your soul connects with another. Still, The Photograph is more than a romance film--much more. It’s about the prisms from which we view ourselves and the light we bring to the lives of others. It’s a piece of art about connection, loss and the choices we make.
The same caliber of modern films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk in showing the intimate lives of Black people, The Photograph’s arrival solidifies a Black renaissance in mainstream films while paying homage to that very first kiss.
WATCH: Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield share the wildest thing they've ever done for love:
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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