Black romance, no blackness

One of The Photograph’s trailers features two beautifully soulful R&B songs. Roll Some Mo and Hard Place are songs by two breakout stars of the genre, Lucky Daye and H.E.R. Both songs have topped charts and were nominated for Grammy awards this year. To use these two songs in a trailer is to set the bar quite high for a romance flick.

The film isn’t ground-breaking in its storyline, but it’s not flat. It has a typical romance plot: two beautiful protagonists, who have typical sidekick friends as supporting characters, witty one-liners, a focal event that holds the plot together, relationship tensions, character arcs, a climax and a conclusion. The storyline plays out cleanly and there aren’t any misplaced, jarring or cringeworthy scenes that romance films so often have. And there isn’t the ubiquitous predictability despite the unmistakable rom-comish format.

There is an endearing novelty to the film that is a little difficult to place. I wonder if it’s because The Photograph feels current. Yes, the film has significant use of flashbacks, but the present comes across as very present. References to Kendrick Lamar, Drake and problematic Yeezy ground it firmly in the now, as do the dialogue, wardrobe and imagery.

The Photograph is also well cast, shot and scored.

Fresh faces abound and the stars are the hot-right-now Issa Rae and Lakeith Stanfield. People are not at all over Rae’s take on the plight and joys of black womanhood as portrayed in her series Insecure. With his roles in Sorry to Bother You, Atlanta and Get Out, Stanfield is a definite Hollywood breakout star.

The characters are relatable and so are the situations. New York captures the fast-paced life most of us find ourselves living and Louisiana encapsulates the intimacy we all desire and search for.

With regard to music, The Photograph is set up to be any R&B, soul and jazz fan’s dream. This doesn’t come as a surprise given that Robert Glasper co-ordinated it. By having Glasper on board, the film’s sound compliments its smooth cinematography. The Photograph plays out in stunning hues that, along with the film’s lighting, highlight the skin tones of a predominantly black cast. But it’s no wonder because the film is produced by Will Packer who — by producing films such as Think Like a Man, Girl’s Trip and Stomp the Yard — is well versed in capturing black skin.

But I don’t want to diminish the film by seeing it as a “black movie”. So many times good black movies have been regarded as just that, good black movies. Sure, black directors, writers and actors are still on the back foot in terms of Hollywood prominence. But the days of producing a film solely to tell the story of black people, African-Americans in this case, are long gone. The pervasive narratives of violence, poverty, oppression and the general struggle of black people are also not the prime focus of black filmmakers.

In 2020, Tyler Perry has retired his role of Madea and black people are not as willing to fork out money to see yet another film about slavery. But we are more willing to spend R200 at a movie theatre for a charming, light-hearted romance flick that hits all the right feels and happens to be about two black protagonists in the real world, in real time.

As much as I’d like to leave the race factor out of the The Photograph, it has to be noted. The fact that there are no snappy Ebonics (American black English), tropes or references to black plight is something to marvel at. Unfortunately. No “big mommas” or dorky, unhip white friends or typical dark-skinned black man with light-skinned black woman staples. No loveable but helplessly ratchet Tiffany Haddish-like characters either, thank God. And on that note, no Sunday church or choir scenes. Phenomenal.

Instead, we have a film that is per fectly tempered — not too serious but not vapid — that just so happens to be black. Love Jones, Soul Food and Set It Off all crawled so that The Photograph could walk.

It’s taken long enough, but The Photograph lets audiences know that it’s possible to have a delicately painted love story that is just that — a story of two people (who happen to be black) falling in love.

Keep the powerful accountable

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Refiloe Seiboko
Subeditor at Mail & Guardian

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