If I wanted to be punny, I would start this review with something like, “The Photograph is underdeveloped,” which, did you get it, that’s darkroom humor! It’s about the process of how film becomes a printed photograph! It’s about how a moment captured in time can become something more than its physical representation, and can have resounding consequences throughout generations! And I wish that The Photograph invested more time in those ideas and in its characters. By attempting to tell two love stories decades apart, The Photograph splits too much of its attention, resulting in relationships that both feel underconsidered.
The film, written and directed by Stella Meghie (who previously directed the YA adaptation Everything, Everything and the Sasheer Zamata vehicle The Weekend) boasts an inarguably stacked ensemble: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Rob Morgan, Courtney B. Vance, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Y’lan Noel, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, and the particularly fantastic Chanté Adams, who you may recognize from 2017’s deeply satisfying Roxanne Roxanne, alongside Mahershala Ali and Nia Long. A few of these actors have worked together on various other projects—Rae and Noel on her show Insecure, Howery and Stanfield on Get Out—but The Photograph mostly splits up its cast into two time periods. We begin in the late 1980s, with an admission from photographer Christina Eames (Adams): “I wish I was as good at love as I am working. I wish I didn’t leave people behind so often.”
That statement then pulls us forward, into present-day New York City, and backward, into Louisiana in the early- to mid-1980s. In NYC, journalist Michael Block (Stanfield) is always looking for his next big piece, and his ambition puts him at odds with most everyone in his life—his editor (Chelsea Peretti), who knows he’s growing disengaged; his brother and sister-in-law (Howery and Parris), who don’t see him very often although they live just uptown in a goddamn gorgeous brownstone with yes, I counted, TWO separate tea sets and FOUR sets of dinner plates; and his long line of former girlfriends. When Michael travels to Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana, to work on a story about the continued impact of Hurricane Katrina and the lingering effects of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill (subjects which never come up again), he meets former oil worker Issac (Morgan), who has a photograph on his mantle that catches Michael’s eye. A young woman, beautiful but unhappy, sitting at a table, staring directly into the camera.
Who is she? The answer is the woman we saw in the beginning of the film, Christina Eames, whose daughter Mae (Rae), is an assistant curator in NYC, working on putting together a retrospective on her mother in light of her recent death. Christina was a woman who kept a lot of secrets, Mae keeps saying, and the movie then falls into a structure where we travel backward in time, where we see Christina keeping those secrets, and forward in time, where Mae and Michael, connected by her mother’s work, are beginning to fall in love.
But who the hell are any of these people? Really? Truly? On the inside? Meghie’s script fails when it comes to demonstrating any depth at all for these characters—what drives them, what motivates them, what troubles them, what excites them. We see that Christina likes taking pictures and feels stifled in small-town Louisiana, but what about photography compels her? Later on, the exquisite wealth of her and Mae’s life suggests that Christina hit it phenomenally big with her work—but what was her ethos? What drove her art? That lack of narrative detail is unfortunately shared by every character here. Michael is working on that story about Katrina and BP, but we never hear another peep about it; instead, his work morphs into a profile of Isaac, but we don’t see him working on it, considering what he wants to say, or sharing it with Isaac for his reaction. We don’t know why Michael would feel stifled by what seems like a very cushy job in NYC; what he likes writing about or what he wants to do with his journalism. And then there’s Mae, who speaks over and over again about not wanting to be like her mother, but because we never see what kind of relationship Mae and her mother had, that desire to not be like Christina lacks impact. Every character here is defined in relation to someone else instead of standing alone: Christina in relation to her mother; Mae in relation to Christina; Michael in relation to his settled-down brother. The lack of individual focus makes it very hard to care about anyone, and then all of a sudden Michael and Mae are in love, after one date in which they discuss the merits of Kanye West vs. Drake vs. Kendrick Lamar and after one very chastely edited, thoroughly PG-13 sex scene. THAT’S IT! Is that enough?
In fact, it is not! And while I can appreciate the gorgeous production design of The Photograph, because we don’t know about these people, their wonderfully moneyed lives are more puzzling than comforting. How does Mae afford her gorgeous apartment, with floor-to-ceiling glass windows lining its entire length? Or her latest-season Prada bag? How does Michael afford his pricey car on a journalist’s salary? Of course, we’re used to seeing this level of aspirational wealth in movies about white people falling in love—Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers come to mind—but because The Photograph pays such little attention to its characters, these luxe details stand out even more. The movie sets itself in the environment of NYC’s media and art elite but never analyzes what these settings would mean for these people.
The disappointment here is because Rae and Stanfield are so phenomenally charismatic, and the rest of this cast so stacked, that you want more for them to do than suddenly vault into arguing about spending the rest of their lives together. The only character whose motivations truly make sense is Isaac, and Rob Morgan imbues him with the regret and melancholy of a man who has lived his entire life second-guessing his own choices. As always, as in Mudbound and The Last Black Man in San Francisco and Just Mercy, Morgan is exceptional, and his delivery of “I didn’t know how to be with a woman I had to keep up with” speaks to the level of feeling The Photograph should have afforded all of its characters. Wealth alone is not narrative development.
The Photograph opened wide in the U.S. on February 14, 2020.
Header Image Source: Universal