It’s no secret that most romances made during Hollywood’s Golden Age centered around white people, with Black actors mostly relegated to films about race. Today, movies about Black people set during the Civil Rights era still largely concern marches, police riots, and lunch counter sit-ins, with the quieter, equally important everyday moments pushed to the background. Sylvie’s Love asks, what more intimate stories would’ve existed from that time, had Black filmmakers had the opportunity to tell those stories?
We open to the swelling notes of Nancy Wilson’s “The Nearness of You.” Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) stands inside the lobby of Manhattan’s Town Hall theater, a vision in turquoise ‘60s glamour. She runs into Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), whom she hasn’t seen in five years, and from the moment their eyes meet, it’s clear their connection was something more. The film then flashes back five years: Sylvie’s working in her father’s record shop and Robert’s an aspiring tenor jazz saxophonist who lands a job there. The two fall in love during a whirlwind summer romance, as does Sylvie’s cousin Mona (Aja Naomi King) and Robert’s bandmate Chico (Rege-Jean Page). Cue the adorable montage.
The romance is, of course, not without its obstacles. Sylvie is engaged to Lacy (Alano Miller), currently serving overseas in the military, but she can’t resist the joy she feels with Robert, who values her and her ambitious aspirations—a far cry from her mother’s expectations of a solid marriage that upholds the family’s social status.
Their relationship is ultimately short-lived, as Robert’s jazz quartet finds success traveling to Paris. Sylvie follows through with a marriage to Lacy, now an ambitious advertising account executive. These circumstances converge in a love triangle that comprises most of the latter half of the film, but writer-director Eugene Ashe allows equally intriguing subplots to flourish: Sylvie’s rise from TV-watching obsessive to TV executive pays homage to the Diahann Carrolls making strides in entertainment at the time, and the storyline is a welcome reprieve from the all-too-common romance trope of a female character’s personhood taking a back seat to her devotion to the relationship. Ashe also depicts Black creatives making art and experiencing personal growth alongside radical social change, something usually exclusive to white leads like Mad Men’s Don Draper or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Midge. Here, there’s mention of the racism that is always present, but it never crosses the line to outright ugliness.
Aja Naomi King is a scene-stealer, providing comic relief as Sylvie’s activist cousin and moral council. A character who begins as the more outgoing, witty nightlife companion morphs into an organizer and attendee of historic marches and speeches, gently reminding audiences of what’s happening outside Sylvie and Robert’s self-contained journey.
Asomugha’s performance is nicely understated; he embodies Robert with quiet self-assurance, aware of his talents but never ostentatious. He brings a warmly tempered sensitivity and tenderness to the role, a timeless softness we rarely see from Black romantic leads. However, Tessa Thompson is the brightest star of the film. She’s grown exponentially as a performer over the years and shows increasing versatility, wonderfully capturing the bubbling passion that women of the era had to suppress beneath a performed politeness. Thompson evokes the nature of actresses from the late ‘50s but with a modern approachability, keenly expressing the hardship of trying to find a sense of self while balancing the perfect housewife expectations of suburbia.
Thompson and Asomugha are a lovely pair with undeniable chemistry. There’s a shy, almost gentle to the touch romance that brings new life to the stillness of classic cinema. Their love feels deeply sincere and dynamic.
Ashe is a savvy filmmaker who knows exactly when to use blocking and staging to enrich the story, as well as allude to other romantic cinematic moments without using them as a crutch. His camera smoothly swirls around his leads as they have their first kiss on a rainy Harlem front stoop. A date inside a Chinese restaurant dressed in red lighting reads like a love letter to Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love. Shot by cinematographer Declan Quinn, who appropriately casts a dreamy, eye-popping vintage gloss over the characters, Sylvie’s Love visually encapsulates the love it wants to convey, using camera pans or transitions that evoke films of the time. The score by Fabrice Lecomte is equally impressive; from the music composed for Robert’s fictional quartet to the overarching score, the jazzy melodies beautifully complement the budding romance, career setbacks, and heartache. Production design from the mind of Mayne Berke gets mid-century modern exactly right.
Though Ashe makes smart and at times subversive choices with his passion project (he dreamed of honoring his family’s memories and referenced photographs from the time period), the film does fall into a classic romance cliché and takes a misstep with its conclusion: an easily fixable misunderstanding between characters. Robert lets ideas about what makes a “real” man cloud his judgment, prompting the question, would Robert’s views on gender roles be a point of contention for the couple after the end credits roll? The film then rushes to its conclusion, leaving the final scenes not quite as climactic as one would hope and lessening the satisfaction of the ending. But even this trope doesn’t take away from the overall delight of the movie.
Overall, Sylvie’s Love is a welcome addition to Black cinema: a period piece not filled with our painful history, but, rather, an entrancing and entertaining ode to Black life and love, a reminder that celebrations of love—and of art and jazz and creativity—are just as important as the moments that take center stage in history books.
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