*Warning: Spoilers Ahead*
Lakeith Stanfield as Michael (left) and Issa Rae as Mae (right) Image courtesy of Variety
Stella Meghie’s The Photograph is a beautiful film that aims to capture what it means to love and be loved while keeping black identity at its core. Throughout the film, the audience watches as two characters, Mae and Michael, try to fall in love while dealing with the past. The movie follows the current day romance of Michael and Mae while also following the past romance between Mae’s mother Christina and Isaac. By putting these two storylines up against each other, Meghie effectively manages to tell a story not only about love, but about generational trauma.
After her mother (Christina) dies, Mae begins reading a letter detailing a relationship between her late-mother and a man named Isaac. At first, Mae is angered and confused by the letter, unsure as to why her mother decided to act motherly only in death. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that Christina’s only way to act as a mother to Mae would be through this letter because of her own rocky relationship with her mother. The conflict between mother and daughter is nothing new and is a tension felt in most black art. The way our mothers treat us in turn affects how we treat our daughters and so it continues.
This is how generational trauma is passed down. The acts of our parents dictate how we in turn will act as parents to our children. Those actions get passed down over time so that events that happened long before the existence of a child can still have severe effects on that child’s life. This is best shown in the film through the similarities in the death of Christina’s mother and her own death. Both women lied about their own illnesses in order to not look weak in front of their children. That idea of appearing weak is passed on throughout generations and if it were not for Christina writing the letter to Mae, Mae very well could have followed directly in their footsteps and caused pain and heartache for her future children.
The most powerful thing about this film though, is that it portrays not just how generational trauma can be passed down, but how the small actions one takes in their lives can combat the trauma passed down to them. While Christina did pass down some of that trauma to Mae, the letter she wrote was one step in the right direction. Unlike Christina’s mother, Christina took action before she died in order to prevent the passing down of trauma to Mae’s possible children. That one letter changed the entire course of Mae’s life.
The Photograph is especially exceptional because its cast and characters could never be white. The struggle with generational trauma in this case is a uniquely Black American experience. The struggle between mothers and daughters, choosing to love over practicality, and even the setting cannot be separated from blackness. The most powerful message for Black Americans to take away from this movie is that generational trauma is not something that is permanent but something that can slowly be repaired by the small actions taken consciously to make a better life for those who come next.