‘The Photograph’ Captures Generations of Love Blossoming and Spreading Free

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CREDIT: Universal Pictures

Starring: Issa Rae, Lakeith Stanfield, Chanté Adams, Y’lan Noel, Rob Morgan, Lil Rel Howery, Teyonah Parris, Courtney B. Vance, Chelsea Peretti, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Jasmine Cephas Jones, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Stella Meghie

Running Time: 106 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Some Sizzling Moments

Release Date: February 14, 2020

The ads for The Photograph have been giving off strong “Nicholas Sparks, but with black people” vibes. However, I had a hankering suspicion that it wouldn’t actually be as saccharine as that glossy presentation suggested. First and foremost, the two leads, Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield, are not exactly for taking on such gloopy material. Surely their presence would ensure that things would end up a little more left-field than this genre typically goes. Indeed that has turned out to be the case, but to be fair to the marketing team, this is not an easy movie to advertise. It has a slow-burn meditative spirit (driven along by Robert Glasper’s jazzy piano score) that does not immediately grab you in the way that trailers are meant to in a couple of minutes. But if you simmer in it for a couple hours, your heart might just grow a few sizes.

Michael (Stanfield) is a reporter working on a story that happens to involve recently deceased photographer Christina Eames (Chanté Adams). He then finds himself smitten by Christina’s daughter Mae (Rae), who is working her way through the truth bombs that her mom has left her in a pair of letters, one addressed to Mae and one to Mae’s father. Meanwhile, writer-director Stella Meghie frequently takes us back to Christina’s young adulthood in small-town Louisiana where she is unable to reconcile a possible future with the man that she loves (Y’lan Noel) and her dreams of making it big in New York City. She tends to always choose her professional goals over her loved ones, and in a case of family history rhyming, Mae and Michael find themselves worried that they are going to do the same. That struggle to find the nerve to say what you know is in your heart is deeply felt in The Photograph.

I have noticed a lot of excitement around this movie about the potential to see black love that is not also about trauma on the big screen. And if that is what you are looking for, I suspect that you will be satisfied. The blackness in The Photograph is not meant to represent all blackness, as Michael and Mae’s story is by no means a microcosm of all people of color. They are two people who happen to be black and happen to be falling in love. The details are their own, while also being part of a continuum of their lineage. It is an openhearted, generous story that I think a lot of people are going to be happy to witness.

The Photograph is Recommended If You Like: Beyond the Lights, Love & Basketball, A bottle of wine and a record player on a rainy night

Grade: 4 out of 5 Darkrooms

This Is a Movie Review: Barry Jenkins is as Sensitive and Empathetic as Ever with James Baldwin Adaptation ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’

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CREDIT: Tatum Mangus/Annapurna Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Bryan Tyree Henry, Ed Skrein, Emily Rios, Finn Wittrock

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: R for Longtime Friends Becoming Lovers and Their Families Yelling Awful Things at Each Other

Release Date: December 14, 2018 (Limited)

One of the strength of Barry Jenkins’ films is that they work much like how the human brain works. They process their stories from a clear beginning to end, but along the way they take detours, often expressionistic and dreamlike, because in their associative natures they have tendencies to temporarily disassociate. The narrative focus in If Beale Street Could Talk is on the effort to free Alonzo “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) from jail after he has been (obviously and egregiously) falsely been accused of rape. We stay close with his family and pregnant girlfriend Tish (KiKi Layne) as the weeks tick by and they do whatever they possibly can for a young black man in 1970s America. Interspersed with this steady passage of time are flashes of Fonny and KiKi’s memories, hopes, and nightmares. The images in these moments are often idyllic and tranquil, but there is an undercurrent of imprisonment demonstrating that the worst of reality cannot be fully escaped as it infects our psyches.

If On Beale Street Could Talk is based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, and Jenkins’ smooth hand ensures that Baldwin’s conception of Harlem is brought to tactile, contemporary life. Layne’s sweet, mischievous, and unapologetic narration; Nicholas Britell’s smooth score; and James Laxton’s crisp cinematography make for a sensuous feast that altogether works to achieve a remarkable feat of empathy generation. All films that are worth their weight put us in their characters’ headspaces and let us discover what they were all about, but Beale Street is a special case. Every moment is especially intimate and familial, and it is thus an honor to be invited in. Like most stories about false accusations and systemic discrimination, this one is frustrating to anyone who cares about justice, but amidst all that there is to be angry at, Jenkins somehow manages to achieve an odd sort of peace by the end. Everything is far from perfect, but the love between Tish and Fonny is real and worth celebrating.

If Beale Street Could Talk is Recommended If You Like: Moonlight, The Harlem Renaissance, Love & Basketball

Grade: 3.75 out of 5 People Who Love Each Other