‘The Photograph’ Director Stella Meghie on the Unbearable Weight of Representation

the photograph
Sabrina Lantos

The Photograph” is about to enter its third week in theaters. My head’s still spinning from the reviews and Twitter response — but let’s pretend I don’t read those. Folks have been kind to the film and I’m grateful. There’s unbearable weight called representation that lodged itself against my shoulders dropping a film during Black History Month and on Valentine’s Day. I joke with some of my friends and peers that I hope none of my films are ever called timely or important. I just want them to be good. Sometimes when they haven’t been tampered with too much, they can be. I want my work added to the canon of films I go back to year after year, but I could do without the comparisons — wishing there were enough films by black filmmakers that audiences and critics don’t feel forced to compare my work to a shortlist of black films or romantic dramas that have gotten their rightful due in the past decades. I cannot represent everything to everyone — and neither do I want to. I represent women like me when I’m at my best and writing honestly.

My work’s influenced by different moments in my life when I explored different tastes. I went to school in London to get a different perspective after living in New York and feeling like the world revolved around that city. I was obsessed with “Breathless,” “My Night at Maud’s,” “In the Mood for Love” and “She’s Gotta Have It.” I watched “Slums of Beverly Hills” and “Hannah and Her Sisters” far too much when I was writing my first film “Jean of the Joneses.”

My Jamaican grandmother, mother and aunts are responsible for my dry humor — for putting blunt dialogue in the words of the women I write and forcing the men around them to find it charming. I cackle when I watch “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” because I grew up around that kind of scathing conversation. Movies like “Mo’ Better Blues” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” showed me the weight of a good romance not boxed in by chocolate boxes and flowers. Although — sometimes I worry only men can be taken seriously writing about women.

If I wasn’t in film, I’d likely be in music. Film and music are inseparable in my creative process.

I’m still floored by the soundtrack for “The Photograph.” I teared up the first time I saw Chante Adams and Y’lan Noel on-screen with Luther Vandross playing over them. I ugly cry hearing “London” by Robert Glasper. The score he created was so emotional, so rare — I’m so grateful to him. To have an artist who influenced my past work become a collaborator. A jazz score composed by a black composer — imagine that. We did it. I wanted the score to represent the blackness of its characters. I wanted my film to be about blackness and lived histories, without talking about it — without centering its story on the perils of whiteness.

I’m influenced by art and photography — as a professor once told me you have to be inspired by things other than films or you’re just stealing. I was inspired by Carrie Mae Weems’ “Kitchen Table Series” when I was writing “The Photograph” and imagining Violet’s kitchen in Louisiana. Photographer Jheyda McGarrell created “Christina’s Portfolio.” She was finishing her thesis at NYU when I asked her if she’d do it. Her work made Christina’s history feel lived in on-screen. It was important for me to find a woman of color to represent the character and to find artists that represented Mae to fill her apartment like Delita Martin, Mequitta Ahuja and Ervin A. Johnson.

If I’m honest — I hate talking about representation, but you’ll find it in my films.

Stella Meghie is a writer and director. Her credits include “Jean of the Joneses” and “The Photograph.”