The Photograph: Exposing the Hypocrisy of the Strong Black Woman Myth

Phyllisa Deroze //

It is not that Black women have not been and are not strong; it is simply that this is only part of our story, a dimension, just as the suffering is another dimension one that had been most unnoticed and unattended to.

bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black[1]

Stella Meghie’s romance film The Photograph (2020), released on Valentine’s Day, gives theatregoers an authentic view into an often-unattended dimension of black women’s lives—one of coping in silence with physical and emotional health issues while falling prey to the pressures of upholding the myth of the strong black woman. The film has mostly been revered for its positive, drama-free portrayal of an African-American heterosexual love story.[2],[3] However, I was most captivated by the movie’s elucidation of the hypocrisy of the “Strong Black Woman” myth and the harmful impact the strength narrative imposes on Black women’s lives across generations. For me, the optimistic ending of Mae and Michael’s happily-ever-after was juxtaposed with feelings of sorrow after watching two generations of black women carry the weight of failing health, terminal disease, and the grieving process without their daughters’ support because the mothers chose to maintain an image of strength.

Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant’s book Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman[4] investigates how “both the expectations and the strategy of strength envelope Black women in silence, stoicism, and ongoing struggle, and how maintaining these processes impacts the body and mind.” Meghie brings to the screen one of Beauboeuf-Lafontant’s main objectives—to explain that the function of the strong black woman is to “defend and maintain a stratified social order by obscuring Black women’s experiences of suffering, acts of desperation, and anger.” Additionally, the film highlights the concept of normalized chaos as defined by Shawn Ricks. Normalized chaos is a “defense mechanism used by Black women to minimize daily hassles and life situations, viewing them as part of their ‘normal’ life. [It] leads to cocreated self-violence and trauma under the guise of martyrdom” (343).[5] In order to explain the sorrow I felt at the film’s end, this essay will concentrate on the mothers while providing an overview of the plot.

The Photograph’s plot revolves around two love stories told simultaneously through flashbacks between Mae’s present and a period in the past when Mae’s mother (Christina) was at a similar age. Mae and Michael are the contemporary young couple in their late 20s or early 30s, whose fairy-tale romance is juxtaposed by scenes of Christina and Isaac’s love affair. As Christina’s story unfolds, we learn that her mother (Violet) dislikes Isaac and eventually kicks Christina out of the home. As Christina prepares to leave for an overnight trip with Isaac and another couple, Violet says, “You getting too old to be living with me.” When Christina asks if she is kicking her out, Violet continues, “I’m saying you’ll probably be more comfortable living alone. Start looking for a place that’s yours.”

This dialogue happens with Violet’s face turned away from Christina the entire time. Christina moves in with Isaac, turns down his multiple requests for marriage, and shortly thereafter, leaves him to fulfill her dream of being a photographer in New York City. Three months later she returns to Louisiana to attend Violet’s funeral. During the services, Christina tells her friend Denise, “I think she asked me to leave because she knew she was sick. She didn’t want me to see her weak.” The myth of the strong black woman is evoked here as viewers now understand why Violet chose not to look at her daughter when she kicked her out of the home. Tragically, Violet opted to uphold an image of strength and suffer alone rather than tell her daughter about her terminal cancer diagnosis. At the funeral, Christina realizes that she was robbed of the opportunity of being a supportive caregiver for her mother.

Years later, Christina visits her hometown again, this time with her young daughter Mae in tow. She unexpectedly meets Isaac who offers to drive her and Mae to the bus station for their return trip to New York City. When they arrive at the station, Christina gives Isaac a kiss on his cheek and asks him not to escort them inside the building. When Christina and Mae are inside the station, Christina quickly finds available seats, sits, and has an emotional breakdown. While Christina laments, a voice-over is heard: “I didn’t know how to love you except showing you the arch of a woman. I wish I was able to put as much courage into being your mother as I did my work.” Isaac is Mae’s father. But, rather than tell him he has a daughter and share the task of parenting, Christina closets her pain and it bubbles over in the bus station. Filmmaker Meghie allows this moment of visible emotional pain and uncontrollable crying to linger long enough that an uncomfortable gaze develops for viewers who are not accustomed to seeing the anguish and vulnerability that lies behind the strong black woman myth.

Additionally, throughout the film Mae learns about Christina’s life from letters that she wrote to Mae while dying. Mae was also robbed of the opportunity to support her mother during Christina’s final days. Both Violet and Christina opt to maintain silence and live estranged from their daughters when their physical health deteriorates. Indeed, the film depicts normalized chaos[6] as well as a generational pattern of trading transparent vulnerability for secret suffering.

The Photograph concludes with Mae arriving in London, where Michael has relocated for work. She is ready and available to begin a romantic relationship despite the transcontinental distance. When she appears with two tickets to a concert they both want to attend, applause and cheers erupted in the theater I was in. Everyone around me seemed happy that Mae was fighting to have her happily-ever-after ending. However, I could not help but feel that her leap of faith toward a long distance romance might be another example of claiming the strength narrative. I left the theater in a somber mood because the strong black woman myth lives on for a third generation.

[1] hooks, bell. Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. South End Press, 1989.

[2] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/13/movies/the-photograph-review.html

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/film/2020/mar/08/the-photograph-review-lakeith-stanfield-issa-rae

[4] Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Tamara. Behind the Mask of the Strong Black Woman. Temple University Press, 2009.

[5] Ricks, Shawn Arango. “Normalized Chaos: Black Feminism, Womanism, and the (Re)definition of Trauma and Healing.” Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism 16, no.2 (2018): 343-350

[6] A defense mechanism “strengthened by three main ideas: the narrative of the Strong Black Woman/Superwoman, the cultural stigma regarding mental health and depression in the Black community, and a narrow view of trauma that does not allow Black women to recognize microaggressions and gendered racism as traumatic events” (344).

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