In The Photograph, LaKeith Stanfield plays Michael Block, a feature writer for a fictional magazine called The Republic. As depicted on the screen, Michael's job seems to consist mostly of lounging around the office looking really, really good — that is, when he's not busy winging hither and yon on his unlimited travel budget. As someone who has actually made their living as a magazine feature writer, I have to give writer/director Stella Meghie credit for nailing the essence of the job.
I'm kidding. If Michael's job was portrayed realistically, there would be a lot more hair pulling, imposter syndrome-inspired breakdowns, and late nights spent wondering if it's too late to go to law school. He certainly wouldn't be able to afford his spacious and immaculate apartment in New York.
- Sorry to Bother You’s LaKeith Stanfield (left) and Insecure’s Issa Rae smolder sexily in Stella Meghie’s The Photograph.
But realism isn't what people want out of a romantic movie. It's one of the rules of the genre that our principals have to have aspirational jobs. Michael's about-to-be girlfriend Mae Morton (Issa Rae) works as curator at the Queens Museum of Art — a job which would pay okay in real life, but not enough to afford an apartment with cathedral-high ceilings. It's all part of the charm of the genre. Director Stella Meghie wants you to identify with Michael and Mae. They're just like you, only a little better — the best version of you.
Besides posing in carefully placed pools of golden light, Mae's current work duties include organizing a retrospective exhibit of her late mother's photography. That's how these two ridiculously good-looking people meet. Michael is working on a story about the disappearing culture of fishermen in rural Louisiana when he meets Isaac Jefferson (Rob Morgan). He sees a striking photograph on Isaac's mantel, taken by Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). Christina, Isaac tells him, was once his girlfriend, but she moved to New York to become a photographer, and they lost touch.
When Michael returns to New York and tracks down the Louisiana mystery woman, it turns out she was Mae's mother. When Michael and Mae come face to incredibly attractive face, sparks fly immediately. A few nights later, Michael scoops up an intern at the magazine office and goes to an artsy French movie at the Queens Museum, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mae. She sees him first, and their attraction is so electric, their respective wingman and wing-woman immediately fall into bed together.
Things take a little longer to develop for our classy protagonists, who, it cannot be emphasized enough, are just stupid hot. Before they get busy, they have relatable dinner conversation, like what the hell happened to Kanye West?
Seriously, what happened to that guy?
It will take an approaching hurricane to get them in the sack making the beast with two backs. As in King Lear, the intensity of emotion summons equally intense weather, only instead of grief and madness lashing the castle walls with rain, it's the sexual energy released by these two hotties bumping uglies that's knocking out power up and down the Eastern Seaboard.
Obviously, Michael and Mae need to be together for the good of humanity, but there are complications. Michael has applied for a job with The Associated Press in London, where he will cover Brexit with his smoldering sexuality several thousand miles away from his boo. Mae's mom left her two letters when she died. One of them was for her, and the other for her father — but there's no name on the father envelope. Turns out, the man who raised Mae was not her biological papa, and her mama has left her a posthumous parentage mystery.
So, in case you haven't caught on by now, The Photograph is a fairly formulaic romance. As both a critic and a genre film fan, I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with following a formula. It's how you execute that counts. Meghie knows what she wants, and she gets it from every aspect of the production. If anything, Stanfield and Rae are too perfect, and their relationship sometimes feels conflict-averse. The variation to the formula comes from the parallel story, told in flashback with the help of some acid-washed '80s costume design, of how Christine escaped from poverty in Louisiana to become a famous photographer in the big city, and the personal price she paid for her success.
The question becomes, will Mae and Michael make the same mistake of sacrificing happiness for success? One thing's for sure: They're going to look good doing it.