‘The Photograph’ Review: Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield Romance Film Is a Refreshing Beauty, Literally

From Love Jones to Love & Basketball, the 1990s were a hey-day of romantic dramas starring Black casts, from Black directors. With The Photograph from director Stella Meghie (Everything, Everything, Jean of the Joneses, The Weekend) there is a loud, clear and beautiful message — Black love in film is everything.

Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield in 'The Photograph'
Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield in ‘The Photograph’ | Universal Pictures

What’s ‘The Photograph’ about and who does it star?

The Photograph revolves around Mae Morton (Issa Rae), the daughter of a famous photographer, Christina Eames (Chante Adams). When Christina dies, Mae has a mixture of feelings, mostly because she and her mother didn’t have a super intimate relationship and she felt there were a lot of unanswered questions about her.

As Mae finds letters and a photograph in a safe-deposit box it jumpstarts a journey in which she learns about her mother’s life and her own identity. This journey goes hand in hand with a romance that she kicks off with a journalist named Michael Block (Lakeith Stanfield).

Led by Insecure star Rae and Atlanta star Stanfield, the film also stars Y’Lan Noel, Courtney B. Vance, Rob Morgan, Lil Rel Howery, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Teyonah Parris, Jasmine Cephas Jones, Marsha Stephanie Blake, and Chelsea Peretti.

Beauty from the look, to the feel, to the sound

You can always tell when a Black director is able to direct Black actors in a Black film.

Meghie does a great job at helming this film, and credit also goes Mark Schwartzbard for the lush look of the movie and the spectacular way that the cast’s skin is depicted on screen. Also, the entrancing, jazzy music by Robert Glasper adds to the film’s beautiful aesthetic.

Meghie’s script allows her actors to inhabit these characters without coming off as inauthentic. It’s not overbearing and sharper in parts where it needs to be.

Stellar performances all around

Stanfield’s performance here proves that he is not only one of the most talented actors working in Hollywood, but he’s hands down one of the most versatile entertainers at ease. He brings a certain warmness to the role that couldn’t have been conveyed by anyone else. Rae is solid here as well, and it is great to see how doing drama as opposed to the comedic fare that she’s known for.

Meanwhile, Chante Adams continues to show that she’s one of the most slept-on, underrated talents in the industry. Most known for her role opposite Mahershala Ali and Nia Long in Netflix’s Roxanne, Roxanne, she undoubtedly is crucial to the film’s more dramatic moments and brings her A-game.

The real MVPs of the film

Some of the film’s more supporting players, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, Lil Rel Howery, and Teyonah Parris are all excellent too. Harrison Jr. has a knack for playing dark, complex teens, as we saw last year in Luce and Waves. He’s garnered critical acclaim for that material but seeing him here in a comedic role and killing it shows that he can do just about everything as well.

While Stanfield and Rae are good in their solo scenes, they are great when interacting with the other cast members. Harrison Jr. and Stanfield’s scenes, depicting a mentor-mentee relationship and friendship, within a newsroom is great to see on-screen and I hope this is just the start of those two being in a project together.

And Rob Morgan, one of film’s unsung heroes of 2018, continues to make is shed tears in theaters.

Simple…but effective?

While The Photograph‘s story, message and plot may be super simplistic that is very much a part of its charm. The jumps between past and present may be cumbersome at times, especially with the lack of context and development in the relationships that Christina has with her mother and with Issac. But, the overall story is put together by the oozing chemistry between the cast.

The film also does comedy just as good as drama, although the film looked like it would initially play up its more dramatic moments. But the love story, mashed up with a lot of family drama elements makes the film more than just a regular romance.

The Photograph is in theaters Valentine’s Day weekend.