It’s the early 1960s, and an elegant Black woman in a floor-length teal gown, portrayed by Tessa Thompson, is waiting impatiently outside a New York City theater. As a Black usher tells her the show is about to start, she spots Robert—her old lover turned successful saxophonist, played by Nnamdi Asomugha—walking down the street. And so Sylvie’s Love, the second effort from writer-director Eugene Ashe, begins.
With so much Hollywood golden-era glamour dripping from the screen, you might miss that the film is set during two movements that awakened the nation: the civil rights movement, which helped the country find its moral compass, and the women’s rights movement, which amplified our voice. But Sylvie’s Love, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and begins streaming on Amazon Prime Video on December 23 (ESSENCE STUDIOS is a proud partner of the Sylvie’s Love), focuses on our humanity rather than on our struggles.
“Even Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. still had a bunch of babies and fell in love,” Ashe says, explaining why he decided to focus on capturing life-changing love in his period drama. “It’s really important to show that we existed in the past [beyond] the ‘struggle culture’—that Black folks were still falling in love. I think not showing that is a way of erasing us.”
Tessa Thompson wholeheartedly agrees, and she reflects that the timing for Sylvie’s Love couldn’t be sweeter. “At a time when we’re talking about the value and dignity of Black life…it’s really great to have a [love] story that offers some escapism for audiences, and that feels sweeping and beautiful and hopeful about love. We really need those kinds of narratives.”
Inspired to create this film after looking at old photos of his relatives in Harlem, Ashe says he wanted to portray the regality of the Blackness he saw in those photos on the big screen. “I was like, wow, that really reminds me of Breakfast at Tiffany’s and movies like that,” he says, “but I’ve never really seen those kinds of movies with Black folks in them.”
Thompson and Asomugha play lovers who can never seem to get their timing right. After walking into a Harlem record shop, Robert spots an engaged Sylvie focused on a black-and-white television instead of enjoying the last days of summer. It doesn’t take long for the budding musician to fall in love with Sylvie, an aspiring producer—an ambitious goal for any woman in that time period.
For the actress and activist, portraying this character was inspiring. “Certainly women like Sylvie existed during the time, but those stories aren’t told,” Thompson explains. “I’m in a period in my career, personally, where I’m launching my own production company. I’m working as a producer, and I… stand on the shoulders of women like Sylvie who came before me—career women who were [pioneers] in a time when it was hard enough to be that as a woman, never mind as a Black woman.”
As our culture continues to peel back the entrenched gender roles that still exist today, Asomugha—who’s also a producer for the film—says he was heartened that Sylvie’s Love shows “Black male vulnerability.” As Sylvie rises in her career, Robert is having the opposite experience. “That was important for us to show,” Asomugha, who’s married to Kerry Washington, says, “especially during that time when there was a hypermasculinity that said, ‘I’m immovable.’”
Adds Ashe: “I wanted to show that Black men can be vulnerable, because there’s a lot of bravado associated with us that, while it’s true, has a lot to do with us always having to protect ourselves.”
Sylvie and Robert’s summer love is not without its challenges, especially since it happens right before Robert scores a lucrative gig overseas with his band and right before Sylvie’s fiancé returns from the war. “None of it is simple,” Asomugha says of the storyline. “None of it is one-sided. Love and life are complex, no matter which lens you’re looking at it through.”
One thing is guaranteed, however: Audiences will be asking will they, won’t they until the very end.
Joi-Marie McKenzie (@joimariewrites) is the author of the memoir The Engagement Game: Why I Said “I Don’t” to Marriage and “I Do” to Me.
ESSENCE’s Behind the Scenes Look on Sylvie’s Love starts Monday, December 14; streaming on ESSENCE Studios. Join us for a series of conversations with co-stars Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, writer/director Eugene Ashe and more of the cast and crew of this incredible film. See the full schedule of conversations and RSVP at www.essencestudios.com.
This interview originally appeared in the November/December issue of ESSENCE magazine, available on newsstands now.