By Dwight Brown
NNPA News Wire Film Critic
It’s a love letter. A missive from filmmaker Stella Meghie to all those who’ve wrecked a romance and wondered if they could pull it back together again. It’s Valentine’s day. Anything is possible.
They meet haphazardly. He, Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield, Crown Heights), a New York City journalist, investigates the recent death of the celebrated photographer Christina Eames. His quest takes him to New Orleans where he meets an elderly Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan, Mudbound), her former lover. She, Mae Morton (Isa Rae, Little), an art curator, meets the reporter when he tracks her down because she’s the photographer’s long-lost daughter.
Sparks fly when the writer meets the art lover. He gives her his number. She never calls. He and an office intern, Andy (Kevin Harrison Jr., Waves), follow her to a swank art gallery opening. Their eyes meet and a flirtation evolves. On a first date, as they sit in a restaurant where their budding love and sexual tension peak, he moves closer to her. In the most disarming way, he whispers: “I was wondering if it was too early in the night to kiss you?”
Stella Meghie, a Canadian filmmaker, knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s pulling heart strings. Cleverly, she weaves two parallel, multigenerational and amorous storylines together that are equally charming and rocky. The very modern romance between the two bourgie lovebirds plays to the young urban crowd. The heart-breaking tale involving a young Christina Eames (Chanté Adams, Monsters and Men) and Isaac Jefferson (Y’lan Noel, The Weekend), in the 1980s, could appeal more to older, suburban and country folks.
Back in the day, in rural Louisiana, Christina’s ambitions drive her to become a professional photographer and move to a New York. Isaac, a humble fisherman, is able to please his woman in only the most basic ways. The shifting narratives between now and then, them and they, frustrating romance and ill-fated love is clear, easy to discern and adds a dramatic undercurrent that never subsides.
Meghie’s sensitive guidance of the love stories builds on a very perceptive artistry she exhibited in her eccentric and ultra-contemporary films The Weekend and Jean of the Joneses. Now, she’s focused her views on the complications of love between two imperfect, career-focused individuals who have a chance to find bliss—or not. Their challenges and unease with courting and sparking will appeal to romantics encumbered by careers and self-made obstacles. Mae: “I wish I was as good at love as I am at working.”
Interesting characters abound: Mike’s brother (Lil Rel Howery, Get Out) and sister-in-law (Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq) embody all that’s good in a marriage. Andy, the young idealistic, waits for his big chance. Mae’s friend Rachel (Jasmine Cephas Jones, Monsters and Men), a skeptic, gets blindsided by Cupid. Christina’s un-nurturing mother Violet (Marsha Stephanie Blake, When They See Us) causes rifts with her daughter and she that will affect generations to come. And the stoic, older and forlorn Isaac represents those who have been abandoned.
Rarely do a movie’s accoutrements play as important a role as the script acting and direction. But, the tech credits are the bomb. Wanna start a contemporary black film on a hip note and capture the attention of Gen Ys, Gen Xs, millennials and boomers? Put André 3000, Mos Def, H.E.R., Solange, Patti Labelle, Marvin Gaye, Erykah Badu, Chaka Khan, Ari Lennox, Al Green and Anita Baker on a playlist. Audiences will love the music, hear those voices and be comforted, seduced or inspired. With jazz musician Robert Glasper (Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film Miles Ahead) at the helm, no wonder the music is heaven.
Mark Schwartzbard’s cinematography makes everyone’s skin look incandescent. The footage’s color is rich, especially the exterior shots of the Louisiana countryside and New Orleans. Wouldn’t change a thing about the production design (Loren Weeks), art direction (Geoffrey A. Ehrlich), set decoration (Jennifer Greenberg, RosaMaria Sasso) or the very eye-catching costumes (Keri Langerman, Luce). And thanks to editor Shannon Baker Davis (The Weekend), every moment of this 1hr 45min valentine’s card is precious.
Stanfield and Rae have a chemistry that is palpable on every level. When they look into each other’s eyes, kiss or make love they turn you into a shameless voyeur. The film’s indelible highpoint, a love scene in the middle of a hurricane, will make you want to hold hands with someone you love. Equally stirring are the love cravings between Adams and Noel. Adams gives the film’s most compelling female performance and Rob Morgan, as the elder Isaac, steals scenes with just a glance.
At one point the very emotionally conflicted Mae apologies to Mike: “I messed up. I said the opposite of everything I wanted to say.” Contrary to her lament, The Photograph says everything right the first time.
Superbly crafted and acted. Romantic on every level. Never overly dramatic, but always captivating. A refreshing and evocative love story for the times we live in.