My mother wasn’t very good at love. What if I’m just like her?
This question is a bittersweet syrup candy-coating my heart when I hear Mae (Issa Rae) ponder it, even in the trailer for “The Photograph,” the new Stella Meghie film that debuts in theaters today.
This year’s Valentine’s Day movie hits different. It’s as if jazz and healing and charm and confronting hard truths have been poured into all of my heart’s broken spaces.
It’s as much about 30-somethings Mae and Michael (LaKeith Stanfield) as it is about Mae and her mother Christina (Chanté Adams), as it is about Christina and Isaac (Y’lan Noel), as it is about the love we learn from our parents and the love that transcends generations.
“I wish I was as good at love as I am at working,” Christina says. “I wish I didn’t leave people behind so often."
When Mae’s mom mutters these sentences, it’s hard for me not to think of my life as a single Black woman wrapped in her words more often than a man. It’s impossible for me not to think of my mama.
She died alone. I mean, my hand was in hers, but she hadn’t had a solid relationship in years and years and years when her heart stopped beating. Her 65th birthday would have been next week.
She wasn’t good at keeping people. Her love language was laughter and gifts, not longevity. We were always missing her, even if she was in the next room. And she was always missing a man. But, like Mae’s dad says in the movie, “She wasn’t just your mother. She was just a woman with flaws.”
I was married once. We hurt each other. I still don’t sleep on his side of the bed. Some of us are just better at love than others. I love big. But I also tend to cover fear and pain with jokes and sharp edges. I learned it from my parents. But it’s important to unlearn the bad things that broke us as children. And “The Photograph” reminds us of the ways in which intergenerational trauma can follow us.
Writer and director Meghie doesn’t shy away from the hard places in our hearts and the dark places in love. She knows, like James Baldwin once said, “Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
Anyone can fall in love with “The Photograph,” but its Blackness is important because it’s so rare we see Black love stories on film visualized so softly and gingerly.
LaKeith Stanfield’s Michael is sensitive. He’s ambitious and cool, but he owns his flaws and goes for his dreams. Black men aren’t portrayed with vulnerability enough.
But to see Issa Rae as Mae? She is the leading lady we deserve this Valentine’s Day. She is Black and soft and confident and career-oriented and anxious and working through her hurt. Seeing her fall in love and walk in her truth is important because Black women are told by study after study that they are the least likely to be married and the least likely to get matched on dating apps. It feels like we are often told we are too much and not enough at the same time. It makes dating hard.
Meghie also understands love’s light. “The Photograph” isn’t just love’s grainy and underdeveloped parts. It is love’s laughter. It’s love’s focus. It is the beauty and breadth of love’s full exposure.
We get to see it in the vulnerability of Mae and Michael, and the tender flashbacks of Christina and Isaac, and the ways in which they fight for love or take flight from love. We see it in the open-minded and free way in which Mae’s best friend Rachel (Jasmine Cephas Jones) gives Michael’s intern Andy (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) a chance. We see it in the lasting love of Michael’s brother Kyle (Lil Rel Howery) and his wife Asia (Teyonah Parris).
Meghie makes magic on screen in how she frames love, specifically Black love, in art museums and lounges and a New Orleans dark room or a Brooklyn Brownstone. The lighting reflects the ebony tones of the actors’ skin so romantically it’s dreamy. This is how Black skin should look on screen.
Jazz pianist and producer Robert Glasper scored the film, and not since “Love Jones” has music been used so masterfully to romance us. It is definitively ours, from Al Green to New Orleans brass to H.E.R. to arguments about Drake and Kendrick Lamar.
I walked home alone after “The Photograph,” Green blasting through my headphones, feeling hopeful and melancholic all at once, Mae’s words still on my mind.
“I think I’m afraid to need someone," Mae earnestly admits after hiding under a lot of things she didn’t mean.
Fear of rejection creates that angst. That brand of anxiety lives in me. It’s not that we aren’t enough as single people. A partner does not make you whole. But it’s beautiful to share a life with someone you love who loves you back and will, as Queen told Slim in “Queen & Slim,” hold your hand as you heal.
Am I like my mother in all the hard ways? Sometimes. But I am more than my mother’s daughter. I’m a woman, like she was, with flaws. And I love myself enough to work through the past so I can walk forward in love when someone’s standing next to me and when I’m by myself, too.
And that’s what “The Photograph” gives us: the big, beautiful, Black picture.