Let’s go back in time. Imagine it’s the summer of 1957 in Harlem. Jazz music is blasting on the airwaves, I Love Lucy is playing on the TV screen and you’re living life carefree — not realizing love is peeking at you from around the corner, ready to whisk you into a lifetime of romance. That’s the story of Sylvie’s Love, a Eugene Ashe-written and directed film starring Tessa Thompson (Sylvie) and Nnamdi Asomugha (Robert), which takes you on a journey of old-school Black love.
From the music to the fashion to the setting, Sylvie’s Love reimagines the essence of Black companionship from the past and gives you all the feels in the process. Sylvie is an aspiring television producer, Robert is a talented saxophone player and their lives unexpectedly blend to create an extraordinary love. Even though life takes them down different paths, one thing that remains the same throughout the years is the feelings they have for each other. Your heart will swoon over her shyness and his charm, and you will yearn for the genuine partnership they have.
Inspired by old family photographs and the humanistic life stories of Black Americans during the 1950s and ‘60s, Shadow & Act spoke with Ashe to get some insight on the movie and what went into creating the authentic beauty and magic of Black love on screen.
This interview has been condensed, rearranged and edited for clarity.
Shadow & Act: Let’s talk about the look and feel of this movie. We can sense that it’ll give viewers a feeling of nostalgia about the essence of old-school Black love. What went into recapturing this through the 1950s/‘60s setting?
Ashe: It starts with nostalgia. I really wanted to evoke a feeling of nostalgia. It’s a feeling that I get when I’m watching movies from that period. Even later periods, with movies like Mahogany or The Way We Were, I just love the feeling of romance that you get. Nowadays when we have a romantic movie, it’s generally a romantic comedy. So it’s always the comedy part. And I like the drama. I want to cry. Everybody needs a good cry every once in a while. I just really love that genre of film, and I feel like it’s been underserved. I mean, the last ones in modern times were The Notebook or Love Jones maybe, but we haven’t had a straightforward romance, so I wanted to get back to that.
With what went into creating that vibe, I wanted you to feel the way that I feel just watching Tessa and Nnamdi and directing them and the production design and the clothes — everything. When I started getting those feels, I knew I was getting close. We had a terrific costume designer, Phoenix Mellow. She worked on Mad Men and also Black Panther, so she really knows what she’s doing and was able to bring it with the clothes.
We also had some gowns loaned to us by Chanel. That was pretty fly. The opening dress that Sylvie has on, that Tiffany blue dress, is a Chanel dress. So, all of those things add to it. And you know, when you put those clothes on, it’s like if you do a Marvel movie — the minute you put the Iron Man suit on, you turn into Iron Man. The minute Tessa and Nnamdi put those clothes on, they turned into Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll.
Shadow & Act: How was it working with Chanel to recreate the vintage costume looks from the ‘50s and ‘60s?
Ashe: It was really not as glamorous a story as that. When I was in rehearsal, Tessa, who is perpetually busy, had a phone call that she had to take. And she was like, “I got to take this. It’s Chanel. I’m doing a thing with them.” And I was like, “Tell them to give us some dresses.” She went out and took the call, and she came back and was like, “Where should they send the dresses to?” You know, she came through. So that was really fire.
Tessa had the access and she used it. That was really fly because they sent us five dresses, and four made it into the movie. There’s another one during the New Year’s holiday party. She’s got this sparkly black one with the big white cowl neck. That dress is fire too. So, she really came through with that.
And then Phoenix designed a lot of stuff. You know when you’ve got the Chanel dresses, then everything has to be on point. Phoenix did a great job, and she designed some original dresses for people. She designed half the suits you’re seeing on the dudes. That was really, really cool. And it’s all about the fit. She’s an excellent tailor; that’s what she did when she worked with Ruth Carter on Black Panther. She did a lot of the fittings, making sure the fit is right because if those clothes are just hanging off you, that’s not how they used to roll back then. They went to the tailor. Even if they bought something off the rack, they went to the tailor and made sure it was tight. She really did her work. She did her thing.
Shadow & Act: Why was it important for you to make a movie that tells a Black love story outside of pain and struggle?
Ashe: I think it’s more important than ever right now. One other thing that is really important, to be a little bit more specific, is to see Black men being vulnerable. Nnamdi is vulnerable in this movie, which is a way we’re not so used to seeing ourselves. I was talking about Doc Rivers during the basketball finals — when he broke down and I was crying. It was such an important thing for people to see because we often have to be, in our own neighborhoods, kind of stoic and we may have to, like, put on a pose that we’re always tough. We are tough, but we also can be vulnerable.
Here’s an analogy I use. Making Martin Luther King Jr. a superhero negates the fact that he wasn’t bulletproof. It makes you braver to have to do what he did when you’re not bulletproof. It’s easy for Superman to walk up to somebody with a gun and snatch it. It’s just that we need to know that Black people are not bulletproof and maybe they’ll stop shooting us.
Shadow & Act: Tell me about the lead actors in the movie, Tessa and Nnamdi. How was it witnessing these two phenomenal actors fulfill the role of Sylvie and Robert?
Ashe: It was like going back in time and watching Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross in Mahogany. I felt like I was making history. I felt like I was a part of history, watching their chemistry evolve. I felt like I was watching one of the great classic Black couples. I’m sure [director and writer] Theodore Witcher felt like that when he was watching Larenz [Tate] and Nia [Long] doing Love Jones, but I felt that same way watching the two of them. It was really spectacular and just a beautiful thing to see.
Shadow & Act: Sylvie mentions in the movie how she believes that Robert can be the next John Coltrane. John and Alice Coltrane had a beautiful partnership. It was a musical love story. Was the characters’ love story inspired by them or any other famous musical couples?
Ashe: Well it wasn’t based on any real people, but it was definitely talking about the chemistry of someone like Billy Dee and Diana Ross or the chemistry of Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll in Paris Blues. I just love seeing Black love portrayed in movies like that, so I really wanted it to be deep.
Shadow & Act: There’s power in how music is used in films. Many times it is used to help narrate the story. Can you talk about how significant music is in this film?
Ashe: There’s a couple of different ways that the music helps you and helps the movie along. Number one, it anchors you in the period. The music itself is from that specific time, it has an inherent sense of nostalgia that you get from hearing those songs because you know that they existed in the past.
But another thing that they do: a lot of songs have big sweeping strings, and they’re very, very romantic and put you in a certain mood. And when you see it juxtaposed with these beautiful images of Black folks dressed like this, it takes you there. It doesn’t just sound like some old folks’ music or some old folks’ jazz. You see it with a new face with young Black people. It gives you the same experience that people must’ve had when it first came out. Nancy Wilson sings the opening song. She was young when she sang that song, so I wanted to make a point that jazz was the music for young people back then, and they were, like, really, really fly. Like, they were sophisticated and fly, and that’s something I’d really like to see Black folks be.
We saw it with Barack and Michelle Obama when they were in the White House. We hadn’t had a president that young since Kennedy back in the ‘60s, and it was the same kind of time. Back then, Kennedy used to have all of these Black performers come to the White House and hang out the way that Barack and Michelle had those parties. It’s that same kind of thing.
Shadow & Act: We can’t deny how powerful it is to see Tessa and Nnamdi on the screen portraying this love story, but we can’t neglect the other talented actors in the film. Tell me about their contributions to the movie’s storyline.
Ashe: They really flesh out the world. If I had left all of the footage in, I would’ve had a three-hour movie. One of the reasons you can really feel their presence is because there was a lot more to all of this storyline; we just couldn’t put it all in. The characters were very, very fully formed, even with the small amount that you see. Everybody knows a brother like Chico (Regé-Jean Page) and everybody knows a Dickey Brewster (Tone Bell). These are like these archetypal characters that were able to flesh out the entire world. They give you little pieces of what’s going on in Robert’s life. They give you a little piece that’s going on in Sylvie’s life.
Now one character that’s really close to me is Mona (Aja Naomi King), who plays Sylvie’s cousin and best friend. That’s another love story, between Sylvie and Mona. Everybody has that one person that’s your ride or die, that you can always count on to be there. You might not talk to them for, like, a couple of months, and you pick up the phone and you pick right back up where you left off. You wonder why y’all don’t talk every single day, but you know life gets in the way.
I really love and am proud of that relationship between the two of them because it reminds me of my mother, who had a cousin Beverly that was her ride or die like that, and it reminds me of me and my cousin Ray Ray. Everybody has a cousin named Ray Ray. We all have those relationships in our lives. This isn’t just about Sylvie’s love for Robert. You notice her and Mona allow each other to be. She doesn’t tell Mona “I’m doing this.” and Mona’s like, “Oh that’s stupid. Why are you doing that?” Mona is not judging her. Mona is the one person she can tell anything, and then Mona becomes a surrogate for us as the audience because we get to hear what’s going on inside of Sylvie. I’m very proud of that character. I wish she could get nominated for something. Aja Naomi King is really such a great actor.
Shadow & Act: What do you want viewers to take away from this film, especially as it relates to what’s going on in the world right now?
Ashe: I would say two things. One: at its core, it’s a love story, and I just want viewers to be able to sit back and relax and enjoy it and get immersed in a different world than the one we’re living in right now. So it’s escapism. I want them to be able to escape into this beautiful world and dream that they’ve lived there for a while.
Also, in the movie, Robert talks about how nothing’s worth doing unless you absolutely love it. I think we’ve had a really unique opportunity to slow down and really think about what things are important to us since we haven’t had to go into work. Sometimes we spend time with people we don’t really want to spend time with just out of obligation. This is a tale that talks about that and how important it is to really pick and choose the things you want in your life and to make decisions on your own. This is your life and you have to live it the way that you want to live it, and it goes by very, very quickly. It’s important that we live our most authentic lives. There’s only one you.
Shadow & Act: What is one hope you have for those who watch the film?
Ashe: This movie is multi-generational. The people that populate the movie are pretty young, but I would love for people to grab your grandma and watch it with her and grab the younger folks because it's PG-13, so you can have some of the younger folks watch it. It’ll be nice to just kind of create dialogue and talk about it. That’s the thing too. Going forward, we need to learn from the people who came before us, and we really need to keep passing those stories down. I can guarantee you that maybe Grandma had some stories from that time period too, and she’ll be like, “Oh no, no-no. You don’t know, when that song used to come on, that was my jam.” It’ll be nice to see that because that’s happened in my own family. I have people, like some older folks in my family, who have seen the movie and they’re like, “Ooh I used to have a dress just like that!” It could be a nice experience, especially over the holidays, so I’d love for that to happen.
While talking about Robert and Sylvie’s relationship towards the end of the movie, Mona tells Sylvie, “Most people never find that love, even for a summer. It’s extraordinary. To extraordinary love.” That’s the type of love we all yearn for — Sylvie’s love.
The film arrives on December 23 only on Amazon Prime Video. Make sure you get your glass of wine and some snacks to prepare for its holiday release here. In the meantime, check out the trailer below: