I saw The Photograph only days after completing Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine. Perry’s text holds hands with Alice Walker’s essay Looking for Zora, as both black women take on the archival pilgrimage to integral pages of the black past. The Photograph features a similar journey, as Mae (Issa Rae), a museum curator, falls in love while the pieces of her past fall in line. The film provides cause to question whether we, the severed babies of Africa, the mother continent, all embark on various manifestations of a mother-bound journey, destined either to repeat past mistakes or improve a design.
Thought it is Mae’s budding relationship with Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) that seems to anchor the film, it is the mother’s love affair with her daughter that embodies the film’s most compelling component. Nevertheless, somehow the mother-daughter relationship between Mae and Christina functions as the films most underdeveloped component as well. Yes, visual narratives that capture the beauty of black love are rare and necessary, but black love is, as it always has been, multifaceted. Thus, showing the love between a black man and a black woman is just as progressive as the love between a black father or mother with their children or re-presenting the untouchable bond present in black friendships.
Instead, the film depicts two black love stories simultaneously, a daughter, Mae, and new flame, Michael, alongside the romance that engendered her birth. After death, Mae’s mother employs language to bring her young love story full circle employing the quintessential, Moynihan report, black conflict—the fatherlessness black child. Here, I reference the posthumous letter that Christina writes Mae that reveals that Christina’s first love Isaac, not the man who raised Mae, as Mae’s father.
This depiction becomes even more troublesome when Christina returns to Louisiana years after her first departure and encounters Isaac with a young Mae in tow. Mae, a living manifestation of their romance, and her age a capsule for the time that passed between their last meeting, sits between her parents in Issac’s truck. In this scene, she functions as a portrait of their union that hangs in the air but is never spoken. Years later, Isaac reveals that he was “scared” to ask Christina if Mae was his daughter. This depiction proved bothersome as it depicted fear as precluding fatherhood, a stigma that sullies black masculinity and veils black fatherhood.
To return to an assertion I made with regards the Slim and Queen film that debuted a few months ago, if black films re-imagine the black experience, why does this re-imagination continually align with anti-black projections? Particularly, why not disrupt the societal stigma surrounding black men and fatherhood rather than re-present it? In contemplating this query it becomes evident that these characters are merely physically black, meaning they could easily be replaced by white characters; however, they consumate a western blackness in their alignment with black caricature.
I found this cliche “black American dad story” far more disappointing than Issa Rae as the film’s choice for female lead. Yes, Issa Rae brings her commodified awkwardness to the film, imposing a non-linguistic anti-black rhetoric onto the film set ablaze by the same black paternal conflict that fosters a large percentage of American daytime television content. This feature reveals that though seemingly focusing on a “black” love story— a core element of the film remains vested in appeasing white expectation.
To this, some will say that my argument echoes W.E.B. Dubois’s early 20th century claim that “all art is propaganda.” Specifically, some will contend that my assertions assign invisibility to integral components of the black narrative. To counter, allow me to state that my assertions are not to “not tell” certain stories, but to tell the untold stories. Continuing to re-present what the white media dictates as truth, the black narrative remains subject to consuming rather than creating an identity.
A re-presentation, or cinematic photograph, of said consumership is precisely what viewers witness with The Photograph. Mae’s mother Christina’s wish what she was as good at motherhood as she is at her craft haunts the film, deeming love an obvious motif; however, The Photograph lacks a love for blackness that affords a third-dimension to pervasively flattened portrayal.
Nevertheless, a broken clock is still right twice a day. The film succeeds in casting Lakeith Stanfield, an underrated but immensely talented actor, as its lead. The looks he gives Issa are what black girl dreams are made of. Additionally, though she contributes to contemporary anti-blackness, Issa Rae is a beautiful woman whose coco brown complexion glows the entire film. The colors featured in the films cinemetography are also melodic and sensual against the various shades of blackness that innundate the film. Michael’s brother and sister-in-law (Lil Rel Howery and Teyonah Parris), portray a happily married young black couple. I found this portrayal quite heartwarming and representing a truth too often obscured by the white media’s preference for black disfunctionality. The film also features a black producer (Will Packer) and screenwriter/director (Stella Medhie), a combination that seldom accompanies mainstream films.
I will say, despite these pleasantries, I have not arrived at a stage in my life where anything is better than nothing. We are a high people, and standards for our re-presentation must reflect this stature.