One could argue that the mid ’90s to early ’00s were the heyday for black romance films.
Not rom-coms, which have been a dime a dozen for decades—but dramas with a solid romantic thread.
Classics like Love Jones, Love & Basketball, Brown Sugar, and Poetic Justice set that standard. Now Stella Meghie is looking to pick up the baton with The Photograph, her latest film.
Written and directed by Meghie, The Photograph follows Mae (Issa Rae) on a journey to learn more about her recently deceased mother Christina (Chanté Adams) and why she made seemingly questionable decisions that are still resonating with the people she left behind. Along the way, Mae meets Michael (LaKeith Stanfield), a star journalist working on a story that just so happens to intersect with Christina’s past. Mae and Michael’s budding romance weaves in and out of flashbacks with Christina’s star-crossed love story with Isaac (Y’lan Noel), giving what Meghie hopes is a mediation on romantic and familial love that’s been missing somewhat from black studio films.
“Love & Basketball touched on this, but it’s continuing on that idea of how your parents’ relationships and your family relationships through the generations can affect your present-day connections, how you communicate with people, and how you love people,” Meghie says.
Meghie has delivered a romantic story for a studio before with her 2017 adaptation of The New York Times bestseller Everything, Everything. While the film was a box-office success, Meghie was not only working within the parameters of someone else’s vision, but there were certain touches of black culture that wouldn’t necessarily make sense in a story driven mainly by a teenage girl trapped in her home because of an immune disorder.
But with The Photograph, Meghie was able to dive deeper into blackness. “I wasn’t sure if in the [flashback scenes] I would stick with [composer] Robert Glasper’s score [or] if ’80s music would seem cliché or obvious. I never imagined using Luther Vandross’s ‘If This World Were Mine,'” Meghie says. “To see it put up to picture, though, it just made a moment between Isaac and Christina so much deeper and so much blacker. It made me cry the first time I saw it—to see our music seen as classic.”
It’s those details that Meghie wants to see more of not only in her films, but for any film representing black stories.
“It’s not enough to just have stories with black people in the lead. I want the writer to be black. I want the director to be black. I want the editor to be black. I want to make sure this is not just a surface story about blackness,” Meghie says. “I want to make sure that there is an inclusiveness within an inclusivity. I want to make sure that these leading black women are dark-skin leading black women. I want to make sure that the breadth of blackness is shown.”
That said, Meghie is fully aware that achieving that level of gender and ethnic parity in front of and behind the camera is a steep hill to climb, particularly for directors like her. According to the Directors Guild of America, women make up 17.1% of its members, but of those, only 4.5% are black.
“We’ve always been at square one. We’ve never reached square two—and I think it’s a systemic problem,” Meghie says “The studios have to step up and give more writers and directors of color a shot to tell different stories. The journalists have to step up. They’ve got to interview these female directors for their movies and not just to discuss how they didn’t get an Oscar nomination. Every single industry that is involved in filmmaking needs to step up and do their part to open the doors.”
The Photograph opens in theaters on February 14.