- “Sylvie’s Love,” starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, offers a refreshing counterpoint by propelling Black romance and self-love to the foreground of a narrative set in late 1950s and 1960s Harlem.
- The film, directed by Eugene Ashe, is almost like a layover from another time, an offering that, if it hadn’t been for Hollywood’s persistent racism, would have existed alongside “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
- “Sylvie’s Love” sweeps you so far up into Sylvie and Robert’s love story – complete with side-by-side bike rides and slow dancing in jazz clubs – that you are almost completely unaware that there is a whole world around there.
- While many films made today often focus on what was, and continues to be, done to Black people, “Sylvie’s Love” is about what these characters are doing for themselves.
- “Sylvie’s Love,” also starring Eva Longoria, Ryan Michelle Bathe and Aja Naomi King, premieres on Amazon Prime Video on December 25.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Too often audiences are so conditioned to watching Black characters grapple with racial trauma that we brace ourselves for it every time we sit down with a film â€” from “Time” and “Da 5 Bloods” to “On the Record” and “Antebellum” (to name a few just this year).
But “Sylvie’s Love” offers a refreshing counterpoint by propelling romance and self-love to the foreground of a narrative set in late 1950s and 1960s Harlem, no less, when groups like the Congress of Racial Equality were advocating for basic civil rights. The result is a charming ballad that reminds us that affairs of the heart existed â€” and prevailed â€” throughout every era of Black history.
“Sylvie’s Love” is almost like a layover from another time, an offering that, if it hadn’t been for Hollywood’s persistent racism, would have existed alongside other famous Cold War-era romances like the ones in “An Affair to Remember” or “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
Like many films of this period, “Sylvie’s Love,” written and directed by Eugene Ashe, centres a prototypically stylish young female protagonist who’s fiercely independent yet struggling to navigate a world that isn’t ready for her â€” in this case, because she’s a woman and Black. The titular Sylvie (a short-coiffed Tessa Thompson) works in her father’s record store where she gazes at black-and-white sitcoms like “Leave it to Beaver” and daydreams about working in TV one day.
Though there’s an awareness of Sylvie’s landscape â€” primarily through Phoenix Mellow’s impeccable costumes, production designer Mayne Berke’s gorgeous reflection of Harlem’s decadence and Fabrice Lecomte’s luscious jazz score â€” Ashe doesn’t anchor his narrative through a prism of despair as many Black films released during the ’50s and ’60s such as “A Raisin in the Sun” and “Porgy and Bess” did. Instead, Ashe drew clear inspirations for his narrative from iconic photographer Gordon Parks and Nancy Wilson’s album covers, capturing everything from Black adoration to fashion and the nightlife scene.
“There’s a crackle when people are dressed up to see a show and holding a clutch and have perfume on,” Ashe told the New York Times. “I remember my parents getting dressed up to do that and thinking, I want to go where they’re going because they smell great and look great.” He added, “[Tessa Thompson] and I talked about making a movie that wasn’t framed through our adversity, but that focused on our humanity.”
For Sylvie, that comes through her journeys with love â€” both with men in her life and with her herself. As we move through her story, it often returns to Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a saxophonist she first meets when he darkens the doorstep of her father’s shop.
There’s an instant electricity when they lock eyes, reigniting that magic we saw between Eartha Kitt and Sammy Davis, Jr. in “Anna Lucasta”or Dorothy Dandridge and Harry Belafonte in “Carmen Jones.” We don’t see it often enough between two Black people on screen, but when we do it is magnetic.
“Sylvie’s Love” sweeps you so far up into Sylvie and Robert’s love story â€” complete with side-by-side bike rides and slow dancing in jazz clubs â€” that you are almost completely unaware that there is a whole world around there. But like any great romance, Ashe eventually allows our feet to touch the ground again when we realise that both lovers have their own lives and aspirations that don’t often intersect. Robert gets a wonderful opportunity to make his dream to be a musician come true while Sylvie is determined to cut through the racist and sexist bureaucracy and ascend in the TV world.
They both meet challenges indicative of the era in which they live; Black musicians getting ripped off by white gatekeepers and the cutthroat world of media being particularly difficult for Black women. “I didn’t know that a negro woman television producer even existed,” Sylvie says when she interviews for her first TV job.
There is also natural commentary about Black respectability politics and gender roles at home between Sylvie and her husband (Alano Miller) to ground us in the complex realities that surround the era of “Sylvie’s Love.”
But with those touches, Sylvie’s humanity is never marginalised. We feel her joy, her pitfalls, and most importantly her love. We see the same for Robert as well. Whether they find their way back to each other isn’t always the point, subverting a longstanding trope in romantic films. Here, it’s about how these two pursue happiness in every area of their lives â€” together or apart.
While many films made today often focus on what was, and continues to be, done to Black people, “Sylvie’s Love” is about what these characters are doing for themselves, and how they’re choosing to live, despite the world around them.
For nearly two hours, we are fully immersed in Sylvie’s and Robert’s story that are virtually untethered to racial trauma, though keenly aware that Black love as a central plotline is an act of resistance both in their era as well as today.
What’s more beautiful than that?
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