“I just didn’t know how to tell you how I felt. And I think I’m not used to needing anyone. But I need you.”
As we head into Valentine’s weekend, I’ve been thinking about love stories on the screen and wanted to find something new. I’m glad I found “The Photograph” (2020), directed by Stella Meghie. The film was released a year ago, and received stellar notices. For the few weeks it was in movie theatres, it did well at the box office and then things halted. I highly recommend it, for it avoids romantic movie clichés – and it feels grounded. Meghie’s command of the storytelling is both confident and ambitious. There’s one point, about twenty minutes in, that had such a grip on me I was completely enthralled. I like when my mind is appropriated by a new director I’m not familiar with. My analytical brain goes into overdrive and starts to deconstruct.
I can tell you the moment helmer Meghie had seduced me. The main couple – played by an unexpected Lakeith Stanfield and Issa Rae (terrific together) has gone for their first dinner to a chic New York City restaurant and the camera is at a far distance taking in the entire room. We spot the two of them in a booth in the back – and the lens starts slowly moving towards them as we hear them conversing. I start to understand that we’re moving as reservedly as the two lovers are in their falling for one another. The tones on the screen are these rich warm greens – and there’s a soothing jazz score by Robert Glasper that is adding so much to the powers of attraction. “I’m wondering if it’s not too early in the night to kiss you,” says the man.
The movie starts with Michael Block (Stanfield) – a NY photographer for The Republic on assignment in Pointe à la Hache, Louisiana. He is interviewing a fisherman – Isaac – about the effects of Katrina and the oil spill – when he notices a photograph of a young black woman – Christina. Isaac tells him that she was a former love of his, but he lost touch. She went to New York to make it as a photographer.
Michael is fascinated by the photograph and embarks on finding the artist. This leads him to the Queens museum – and meeting curator Mae Morton – who is the daughter of Christina. It turns out her mother recently died from cancer and the daughter is still in shock. She left two letters for her to open and Mae hasn’t summoned the courage to read them.
The narrative will split in two. We will follow Michael and Mae’s contemporary nascent love. She’s cautious and guarded. “Good things take time to develop,” she says. He is reeling from a recent failed engagement to a girl from New Orleans. Michael’s brother reminds him he rushes into things. To add to their chemical attraction, there’s a storm hitting Manhattan – and there’s strong and atmospheric usage of rain and thunder outside. “Something about these hurricanes that make people rash decisions,” comments Michael.
We also get flashbacks from 1984 when Christina was falling in love with Isaac and she wanted to make her mark as an artist. Her mother warns her about the fisherman. “He’s nothing and he’ll never be nothing,” she tells her. Against her mother’s wishes she goes to New Orleans and spends a weekend with him. Abruptly, she decides to pack up and make a go of it by herself in New York.
Eventually the two stories will merge. The past romance will fold in with the present. In one exemplary sequence – which showcases Meghie’s mettle – Michael and Mae will go to the same club where Christina and Isaac had had their own rendezvous. In a long take, we will see them going up the stairs – Mae wearing an amber colored dress – and they will make their way through the bar onto the dance floor. A jazz band is in full swing – and we see a trumpet with its glistening golden hues matching her dress. The effect of the past – the ripples of love and family reverberating into today.
Later in the story, Mae uncovers a video of her mother. It’s the same we’d seen in the opening credits. It’s Christina being interviewed and saying that she wishes she’d been as passionate at being a mother as she was about her work.
Besides the great original jazz score, the film effectively uses songs from Anita Baker, Al Green, Luther Vandross and Whitney Houston – whose biopic is Meghie’s next project. “The Photograph” is a very romantic film that lets things simmer.
Christina: “I wish I was as good at love as I’m about working.”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO NOW, HBO Max and DIRECT and to rent on Vudu, Google Play, YouTube and FandangoNOW
Written and Directed by Stella Meghie
Starring Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield
Writer and Director Stella Meghie on the Idea Behind “The Photograph”
“I started thinking about Hurricane Sandy a lot when I was first writing it and coming up with an idea of what would it be like to spend a night with someone that you were just getting to know during something like that. So some of the scenes in the movie and some of the night that Michael [Stanfield] and Mae [Rae] go through is kind of based on that thought. Also, at the time I was writing it, my grandmother was meeting a daughter she’d given up when she was a teenager. No one had told me in my family about it, even though my mom and some of my aunts knew. That kind of struck me — their reunion. What it’s like to give someone up in your life that, that meant so much to you. What it would be like to reunite and just this idea of these secrets kind of coming to the surface.” (hollywoodreporter.com)
Writer/Director Stella Meghie on the Production Design and Fashion in “The Photograph”
“…there’s both power and purpose in the inherent blackness of Meghie’s film. In fact, Meghie strove to highlight it in both the production design and the cinematography, creating a moody and intimate feel to the movie. “I feel like when you think of studio romance, you think of something very bright and I wanted the opposite.” “I wanted this film to feel sexy and warm and dark, saturated. So it was a pretty tight color palette of these rich, earthy, you know, colors, jewel tones — there’s a lot of burgundy in the film, a lot of dark green, a lot of like chocolate brown,” she explained, crediting her cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard for finding the right look. “I wanted Issa to feel like she was almost glowing. And I wanted Lakeith to feel a little more mysterious, in a way, so we found the perfect balance of kind of shadow on his face. … So he really, you know, rose to that [occasion] to keep it dark, but still capture all the dark melanin of the actors.”
Meghie also imbued her love for fashion into the film [before she was a filmmaker, she worked in fashion PR, after interning at Variety sister publication WWD] and working with costume designer Keri Langerman to hone the characters’ looks. “[Issa’s] so gorgeous in the film,” Meghie said. “I just saw Mae as my most glamorous and polished character that I’ve written. … We kind of found like the right look for her — [designers like] Altuzarra, Prada. I think the yellow dress is like a Mara Hoffman. She wore like Tom Ford. It was definitely designed down, but layered in a way where it didn’t look like the clothes, I hope, were wearing her. And the classic Burberry trench for the storm.” “It’s funny for me, cause if you see me out, I’m in sweats at all times. I’ve gone to big studio meetings in sweat pants and a denim jacket and been just happy,” Meghie laughed. “But when it comes to my characters, I want them to be very polished.” (variety.com)
Issa Rae on “The Photograph”
Rae spoke about “The Photograph” in conversation with Meghie and writer Roxane Gay (“Bad Feminist,” “Hunger”) at Harlem’s nonprofit cultural community centre 92Y. “I saw that it was a love story — a Black love story — and was immediately like ‘Oh, what best friend does she want me to play?'” Rae said onstage. “It was an honour that [Stella] was thinking of me for the lead. The idea of playing someone who, as a little girl watching films growing up, I never imagined I could play was a treat for me.” To bring Mae to life, Rae had to switch gears and tap into her personal struggles to properly inhabit the character. “I did share a lot in common with Mae,” she revealed. “The lack of vulnerability, feeling like you’re not necessarily good at love…” Meghie was strategic about selecting an actor to play against Rae in “The Photograph.” Whoever played Mae’s love interest would have to be equally as complicated but open and expressive, the type of man that any woman would want to let down her walls for. The director admitted that while Stanfield and his “beautiful eyes” were on her radar, she wasn’t sure that he was the right fit for the role. “I didn’t talk to him for a while,” Meghie told the audience of her leading man. “Because I did think, He’s quirky, and he’s not this guy — he’s not going to want to play this. I don’t know if he’s right.” Like Rae, Stanfield isn’t what Hollywood might consider a typical romantic lead; he’s known for being a little bit weird, a misfit of sorts. His idiosyncrasies also lend to his choice in projects, which run the gamut of “okay, that’s weird” (FX’s “Atlanta”) to “wtf did I just watch?” (“Sorry to Bother You”)…When she gathered Rae and Stanfield for their first script reading in New Orleans, Stanfield proved that he was the perfect Michael. “He was so in tune with the character, and he was honest about how he related to Michael because of personal experiences,” said Meghie. “As soon as he opened his mouth, I knew that that was it.” (refinery29.com)
About Composer Robert Glasper
Hailing from Houston, Texas, Robert Glasper is a jazz pianist with a knack for mellow, harmonically complex compositions that also reveal a subtle hip-hop influence. Inspired to play piano by his mother, a gospel pianist and vocalist, Glasper attended Houston’s High School for the Performing Arts. After graduation, he studied music at the New School University in Manhattan, where he found performance work with such luminaries as bassist Christian McBride, saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and others. After graduating college, Glasper worked with a variety of artists, including trumpeter Roy Hargrove, vocalist Carly Simon, and rapper Mos Def. The pianist released his debut album, “Mood,” on Fresh Sound New Talent in 2004. Canvas and “In My Element” followed in 2005 and 2007, respectively, on Blue Note Records. In 2009, Glasper released the forward-thinking album “Double Booked,” which featured a mix of modal post-bop and funky, ’80s Herbie Hancock-inspired numbers with two separate bands. The first of these was his trio with drummer Chris Dave and upright bassist Vicente Archer; they recorded five originals and a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One.” These tracks were followed by five more originals by his electric band, dubbed the Robert Glasper Experiment, featuring Dave, electric bassist Derrick Hodge, and Casey Benjamin on saxes and vocoder. Three years later, the Robert Glasper Experiment (with a slew of guest vocalists) issued their first stand-alone album, “Black Radio,” for Blue Note, which sought to blur the boundaries between jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and rock & roll. It entered the jazz chart at number one and went on to win a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album. Later in the year, Glasper and Blue Note released “Black Radio Recovered: The Remix EP.” 9th Wonder, Georgia Anne Muldrow, and Pete Rock were among those who participated. The following year, the Robert Glasper Experiment (then including Hodge and Benjamin with drummer Mark Colenburg) returned with their equally star-studded sophomore album, Black Radio 2. It also won a Grammy, this time for Best Traditional R&B Performance for a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America.”
Glasper returned to his original acoustic piano trio format with bassist Archer and drummer Damion Reid. They cut 2015’s Covered live at Capitol Studios in front of an invited audience. The album’s pre-release single was a reading of Radiohead’s “Reckoner”; it was released in April, followed by the album in June. Glasper also played on Kendrick Lamar’s celebrated “To Pimp a Butterfly” and Maxwell’s “blackSUMMERS’night.” For Don Cheadle’s 2016 Miles Davis biopic, “Miles Ahead,” the pianist curated the soundtrack and wrote original music, which included contributions from Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, and Gary Clark, Jr. Glasper also recorded “Everything’s Beautiful,” a Davis tribute album in celebration of the trumpeter’s 90th birthday. Glasper reimagined classic tracks with an all-star list of collaborators who included Wonder, Muldrow, Erykah Badu, Hiatus Kaiyote, and John Scofield. Featuring the single “Ghetto Walkin’” fronted by Bilal, the album was issued that May. the Robert Glasper Experiment returned to the studio in early 2016 with a different m.o. Instead of working on the pianist’s music or covers, the quartet members wrote and arranged together in the studio for the first time. The resulting Artscience was issued in September after the pre-release singles “Day to Day” and “Thinkin’ About You.” (bluenote.com) Most recently, Glasper was the composer for Stella Meghie’s film, “The Photograph.”
About Writer and Director Stella Meghie
Stella began her career in public relations, after post-undergrad internships at Def Jam and Women’s Wear Daily brought her to New York from her native Toronto. New York is where she says she became a cinephile. Growing up, “I was more into capital-E entertainment, going to see Batman. After I moved to New York, I got a little more cultured and hung out with a lot of artists, and so ended up getting into more independent cinema.” At the same time, she yearned to do something more creative. “I was trying to write a novel and I was becoming obsessed with independent film,” she said, and that left her deciding between going back for an MFA in creative writing or an MA in screenwriting. She ended up applying to universities in the U.K. after missing all the U.S. deadlines. When she was accepted into a screenwriting program at the University of Westminster, she “just got on a plane and went. It was so strange waking up there and being like, ‘Okay, I’m studying screenwriting and I live in London.’”That’s where Stella penned Jean of the Joneses, which would become her “true ‘calling card script.’” The story follows a woman in her mid-twenties named Jean and her Jamaican-American family of strong-minded but fiercely loving women. After Jean’s estranged grandfather dies unexpectedly at their doorstep, tensions rise and old conflicts come to the fore. “I did Tribeca Film Institute, Nantucket Screenwriters Colony and a bunch of fellowships with it,” Stella said. “When I moved to L.A., I ended up selling a few shows into development and they were all based on Jean of the Joneses as a sample.” Stella soon found herself moving back to Toronto, broke and living at her mom’s bed-and-breakfast. “I was just writing every single day like someone was paying me, even though no one was paying me.” That’s when she became determined to make Jean herself. In the middle of the winter, she thought, “I can’t imagine someone else directing this. I can’t imagine someone else getting the tone I want, getting these Jamaican women how I want them represented.”
The financing ultimately came through—and shooting would begin four weeks later. “In retrospect, I’m glad that it took as long as it did because by the time I shot it, I was so much more settled into how I wanted it to look and what I wanted the cast to feel like. We shot it in 17 days.” Stella had taken a summer directing course shortly after grad school. If she was going to direct her script, she wanted to know the ins and outs beforehand. Luckily, she met the right DP, Kris Belchevski, whom she also worked with on The Weekend, her third feature. “When you meet those connections where you just click in and you get each other, then you really have to hold on to those people,” she said. And, to her surprise, the process on set was instinctual. “It had been sitting with me for so long I just knew every single shot I wanted to do at that point.” Stella debuted Jean of the Joneses at South by Southwest in March 2016, just after #OscarsSoWhite had gained momentum. “There was definitely a shift in mindset, like, ‘Okay, we can’t just keep erasing Black directors, Black writers, Black stories,’” she recalled. “It was a good moment to be trying to break through because people were realizing you should be looking for a young Black woman to direct this story about a Black young woman.” Two months later, Stella signed with CAA, and the first script they sent her was for “Everything, Everything.” She instantly connected with the book and its writer, Nicola Yoon. “It was a beautiful story about a young Black girl and this teen dark fantasy,” she said. Everything, Everything would become her first studio feature. The initial meeting with MGM, however, didn’t go as planned. “I completely bombed it,” Stella said. “Bombing means jet-lagged, not having your presentation with you because you thought your producers would bring it, waiting for the execs to download it and then sharing his screen … It was not a good first impression. I also was just nervous because I literally just made this small film and had barely taken any meetings, much less pitched to studios.” Nerves aside, MGM wanted a follow-up meeting. “I gave myself a talking-to because I knew I would probably be the best to tell the story. I went back in, closer to my normal confidence levels, and just really said why I loved the story and why I was right for it, and then things turned around.” “Everything, Everything,” which starred Amandla Stenberg and was released in 2017, was the first of Stella’s two studio features (so far). But, indie or not, the pressures on any set are the same. “It’s the pressure to make something that’s good. When it’s a studio film, there are just more voices involved, so there are more conversations about why you want to do things and if it should be done a different way.”
As Stella’s career has taken off, she’s remained determined to maintain control over her voice and her stories, and to “protect my art.” That’s why she launched a production company called Bad But Beautiful, inspired by the title of an Eartha Kitt album. “I loved what it said and what it meant,” she said. It’s a sentiment she finds in the strong women around her and one she imbues her characters with. In making Jean of the Joneses and The Weekend (set at the protagonist’s mother’s bed-and-breakfast), Stella turned to the women in her life for inspiration. “Those characters are really pulled from my aunts and my grandmother and my cousins, even though they can’t see themselves in it,” she said. Even “The Photograph,” her latest film, which stars Issa Rae in a tale of unrequited romantic love and is “probably the most removed from my life,” is inspired by a family story. As she was developing the film, her grandmother was getting ready to meet the daughter she had given up when she was very young and hadn’t seen in 40 years. Though it has a romantic bent, the story is ultimately one of reconnection. “I think all my films end up evolving into stories about mothers and daughters,” Stella noted. It’s a sentiment she finds in the strong women around her and one she imbues her characters with. In making Jean of the Joneses and The Weekend (set at the protagonist’s mother’s bed-and-breakfast), Stella turned to the women in her life for inspiration. “Those characters are really pulled from my aunts and my grandmother and my cousins, even though they can’t see themselves in it,” she said. Even “The Photograph,” her latest film, which stars Issa Rae in a tale of unrequited romantic love and is “probably the most removed from my life,” is inspired by a family story. As she was developing the film, her grandmother was getting ready to meet the daughter she had given up when she was very young and hadn’t seen in 40 years. Though it has a romantic bent, the story is ultimately one of reconnection. “I think all my films end up evolving into stories about mothers and daughters,” Stella noted. (aframe.oscars.org)