While audiences have seen an abundance of romantic dramas throughout Hollywood history, only a tiny fraction have centered on Black characters and that dearth of contemporary Black love stories hadn’t improved over the past two decades. Writer-director Stella Meghie who has a passion for the romantic-film genre, decided it was time to fill that void with The Photograph, a sweeping love story about forgiveness and finding the courage to seek the truth, no matter where it may lead you.
Meghie noted that, to her recollection, there hadn’t been any iconic, mainstream Black love stories for more than 15 years, when movies like Love & Basketball and Brown Sugar were made. Meghie began to think about the impact that physical distance can have on the people we love, an idea that resonated within her own life and family.
“I started to explore what happens when a person continues to love someone over 30 years without being able to see them, but my inspiration wasn’t initially about romantic love,” Meghie says. “I was inspired by a story about my grandmother not seeing one of her daughters for almost four decades. It made me wonder what it was like for her to think about her daughter every single day but not be able to see her.”
On Valentine’s Day, Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure, Little) and LaKeith Stanfield (FX’s Atlanta, Sorry to Bother You) connect in a romance where a woman must learn from the secrets in her mother’s past if she is to move forward and allow herself to love and be loved. When famed photographer Christina Eames unexpectedly dies, she leaves her estranged daughter Mae Morton (Rae) hurt, angry and full of questions. When a photograph tucked away in a safe-deposit box is found, Mae finds herself on a journey delving into her mother’s early life and ignites a powerful, unexpected romance with a rising-star journalist, Michael Block (Stanfield).
Meghie went on to use that notion of distance to develop two multigenerational love stories for what would become The Photograph. She brought her idea to Will Packer and James Lopez—producers who she knew would celebrate the authenticity of the characters and who would honor the experiences that she wanted to portray.
Her pitch was perfectly timed, because the producers had been looking to expand to genres of film they hadn’t yet pursued, and they saw The Photograph as a great opportunity to diversify their slate.
“Like all great Hollywood collaborations, my collaboration with Stella began years ago,” Packer says. “I knew of her and I knew that she had a project that was close and personal to her. Independent of her, I was looking for a rich love story around African-Americans that had themes and dynamics that we’ve seen in cinema, but that we don’t always see on screen with Black people. I thought it would be really interesting to do a Black love story in 2020, and she had the perfect one.”
Packer’s producing partner Lopez adds: “This story was appealing to Will and me because we haven’t seen a lot of dramatic romances made for African-American audiences in recent years. It was a very moving love story told in two different time periods, which we thought was interesting. When I joined Will Packer Productions, Will and I had a long discussion about expanding the brand. The Photograph is part of that expansion because we’ve never done a romance-drama before.”
Packer, Lopez and Meghie were also all in agreement that too much time had passed since audiences had seen a dramatic romance centered around Black characters. The filmmakers were eager to be at the forefront of bringing these types of films back to life, and they shared an affinity for a specific film that they looked to for inspiration. “What interested me about The Photograph was that we haven’t had a love story like this one, with actors like these in far too long,” Packer says. “It made me think back to one of my favorite movies, Love Jones, which is a story that stuck with me because it was such an authentic and true depiction of Black love. I was interested in helping Stella to similarly tell a story of love between Black people today.”
Meghie adds: “Love Jones showed an adult, very sexy, intellectual, sophisticated kind of love,” Meghie says. “That movie shaped me a lot. I’ve watched it at least every six months from the time it came out until today. I can quote every single line.”
Packer has a personal theory on why it has taken so long to get another Black love story to the screen. “I’d like to think it was about waiting for this team to come together to make it happen,” Packer says. “We basically handed it over to Stella and said, ‘Tell your story. Tell the story that’s important to you, because if you tell it and you tell it authentically, it’s going to resonate with audiences in the same way that we’ve seen other stories resonate with audiences.’”
Meghie began her journey of writing the film by reflecting on her relationships with her mother and grandmother and the way that those relationships have shaped who she is today. “I grew up very close to my grandmother and my mother,” Meghie says. “My grandmother was a huge part of my life. I’m always thinking about things from a generational perspective and about how we grow through each generation, so I was glad to bring that element into this film, too.”
When Meghie reached young adulthood, she began to realize how much a person’s history affects how they walk through their daily lives, which is something she now consistently explores in her writing. “I don’t think it was until I was in my 20s that I realized that my mother had gone through some of the same things that I had, relationship wise,” Meghie says. “It didn’t dawn on me until a certain age and at that point, I started to give her a break. It was the first time I really empathized with her about those experiences from her past.”
Meghie went on to develop a story that shone a light on the experience of falling in love from two parallel women’s perspectives, which Packer championed. “I’m no stranger to telling stories with women at the center,” Packer says. “There’s been such a dearth throughout cinematic history of stories with Black women at the center of them being their real, authentic, flawed and ambitious selves. I pay close attention to my audiences, and they say, ‘just show us, as us.’ They just want to be shown as real, rounded characters, and you see that in this movie with two female characters who are genuine, flawed and complex, and to me, that makes for the best type of storytelling.”
Because the story was so close to her, Meghie felt a special connection to the project that she carried with her throughout production. “It’s much different to direct something that I’ve written versus something that someone else has written,” Meghie says. “When I wrote this, I thought about how I would direct it, so I was intrinsically more attached to the material. I had a clear vision about what I wanted to see and how I wanted to shoot it.”
Another element that the filmmakers explored for the characters was their socioeconomic backgrounds. It was important to them to not only break the glass ceiling on making a current Black love story, but also to portray the characters in a different way than audiences have become accustomed to seeing. “Oftentimes, films like this only portray singular demographics, but The Photograph sets its characters in very different economic backgrounds,” Meghie says. “I deliberately made Mae and Michael’s characters in the film upper-middle class because I think it’s important that audiences see all walks of life for African-American people. Mae’s mother, however, grew up with a much lower economic background. It’s time that we get to a point where we make films that everyone can find themselves in.”
Packer adds: “It was crucial to us that the characters’ careers weren’t ones that we see all the time in movies. We decided on careers that we don’t often see African-Americans portray on screen. I’m looking forward to the day when we’re not having conversations about careers that we haven’t seen Black actors play, but we’re not at that point yet, so we thought it was important that the occupations of our characters were a little bit different than what our audiences may have seen before.”
Ahead of all else, however, the filmmakers want audiences to recognize that, while this is a story about Black love, it applies to a wide array of people. The ideas and emotions are universal. Ultimately, The Photograph is a story about complex people who must overcome things, both internally and externally, to realize their potential to love. “I think everyone who sees this film will be able to relate to moments within the narrative,” Lopez says. “Whether it’s a complicated family situation, the end of a relationship or the start of one, The Photograph addresses pivotal and inevitable parts of human life.”
Packer adds: “This is a Black love story because it’s about Black people and it has themes that are certainly specific to Black culture. Stella did an excellent job of making sure that it felt authentic and organic to the Black experience. At the end of the day, though, it’s a universal love story that just happens to be told through this specific lens. I think whether or not you look like the characters on screen, you can find an area of relatability within this story. When you think about some of the best stories, they’re not about specific attributes, cultures or demographics. The best stories are usually universal stories that show a specific point of view. And this story is no exception.”