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THE PHOTOGRAPH is a triple threat: A grand new example of a type of movie we don't see very often, with two actors cast against type, from an up and coming director who is certain to be a big deal as she continues to make movies.
This romantic drama comes from director Stella Meghie (EVERYTHING, EVERYTHING) and stars Issa Rae (LITTLE, "Insecure") and Lakeith Stanfield (KNIVES OUT, "Atlanta") as a star-crossed couple who try to build a future together as they reckon with the past. Every aspect of the movie, from the performances to its luminous cinematography, make it look like the ideal Valentine's Day release.
THE PHOTOGRAPH takes place in two different times and places. Issa Rae plays New Yorker Mae Morton (Issa Rae), the daughter of famed photographer Christina Eames. When her mother dies, Mae struggles to process her relationship with her mother as she takes tentative steps into a romance with a young journalist, Michael Block (LaKeith Stanfield), who is writing about Eames’s work. So the movie alternates between scenes in modern New York City, where Morton and Block develop their relationships, and flashbacks to show Morton's mother's own romantic life.
This is Stella Meghie's fourth feature film, and it establishes her as one of the few black women working as a director for a major studio. Meghie met Issa Rae — who is best known for her comedy work — while directing a third season episode of Rae's Showtime series "Insecure," and their pairing led naturally to Rae's casting as Mae Morton.
THE PHOTOGRAPH gives actor Lakeith Stanfield his first romantic leading role. Stanfield is best known for deadpan comedy, as in the series "Atlanta," and roles in movies like GET OUT and KNIVES OUT, where he's often a counterpoint to the leads. But, from our first look at footage from THE PHOTOGRAPH, Stanfield’s status as a romantic leading man seemed not only inevitable but obvious. Why hasn’t anyone else cast him like this before?
In an interview with Refinery 29, Meghie talked about her casting choice, admitting that "you don’t think of [Stanfield] as the normal leading romantic guy." But "when I spoke to him he was just so romantic. Lakeith is romantic! I don’t know that he would describe himself that way, but he’s very loving and caring, and as he talked about his experiences I was just like, “Oh my God, there’s literally no other Michael.” As we stand now, it would have been a disaster with anyone else! Sometimes you just get very lucky, and the exact right person you weren’t thinking about shows up and saves you."
[Image credit: Universal Pictures]
The idea for THE PHOTOGRAPH goes way back to before the filmmaker made her first movie, JEAN OF THE JONSES, released in 2016. She told Indiewire, "Before I did ‘Jean,’ my manager set Will [Packer, producer] and I up on a meeting, and we had a conversation about really wanting to make the kind of serious romantic drama with black leads that we saw in films like ‘Love Jones’ over 20 years ago."
Look at the trailer, above, and you can see how well she appears to have succeeded. This movie came about thanks to a partnership with producer Will Packer, whose success with films like GIRLS TRIP and the RIDE ALONG series gives him the freedom to make exactly the sort of movie he and Meghie want to create.
Part of the movie's approach to romantic drama is a gorgeous visual style. Rae and Stanfield look incredible; the film's aesthetic is based on very specific choices by the filmmakers. Meghie talked to The Atlantic about how some movies with black actors end up looking less than ideal. "Especially when you’re shooting black skin," she said, "there can be a tendency — if you don’t have the right [director of photography] or colorist — to brighten [the scene] up so you can see [the actors]. And you’re just like, Great. Now it’s ugly."
THE PHOTOGRAPH is anything but ugly. "When I spoke to [cinematographer Mark Schwartzbard], I was like, 'I just want this to feel super-saturated. Very warm. I don’t want to shy away from the melanin,'" Meghie said. "'I want it to be even browner and even more golden and [for] the whole film to feel very sumptuous.'"
The director achieved that goal, without question.THE PHOTOGRAPH is stunning to look at, and we cannot wait to watch Issa Rae and Laketih Stanfield fall in love.
All images courtesy of Universal Pictures.
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