When Sylvie’s Love premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the cast and crew had no idea the events of the coming year would make the movie almost painfully pertinent. In May, a white Minneapolis police officer was filmed kneeling on the neck of unarmed black man George Floyd for almost nine minutes, killing him and triggering a worldwide social justice movement.
Hollywood was not spared its own race reckoning and the industry’s record on diversity and inclusion was once again scrutinised and, in the eyes of many, fell short. Sylvie’s Love, released this month and starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, is set in the 1950s and tells the complicated love story between aspiring TV producer Sylvie Farrell and gifted jazz musician Robert Hunter.
Thompson and Asomugha agreed on the importance of Hollywood telling black stories — and not just following the death of Mr Floyd. Asomugha, 39, said: “It’s very important but I think every year it’s important to tell these stories.
“One of the issues we had with making it was people didn’t think there was an audience for it because it surrounded black people. And it’s a love story of the 50s and 60s, but I think the more we tell these stories, the more people will get used to seeing us on screen and be able to celebrate all of the different facets of our lives.”
While Sylvie’s Love is set during a time when African Americans were still fighting for equal rights in the eyes of the law, the film rarely chooses an overtly political path. This was deliberate, according to Thompson, the 37-year-old Marvel star.
“The design of the film is to not ignore the historical context in which these characters exist,” she said. “But to put the focus instead on the interpersonal as opposed to the societal or political. And this idea that when we don’t allow black folks to exist, even in times of struggle and strife, as people that love, that make love, that have dinner, that have joy, that listen to music, that dance, when we don’t allow ourselves to be that, we diminish our humanity.”
Thompson, echoing her co-star, said she hopes Sylvie’s Love helps change how black people are shown on screen. She added: “Certainly, the idea of black joy has been something that has felt hugely important this year.
“So I’m hoping that as much as this is a love story, it’s also a love letter to black people. And as Nnamdi said, we need it every year, every week, every day. And we certainly need it now so the hope is that it is felt.”
Sylvie and Robert first meet when he walks into her father’s record shop during a sweltering New York summer. The attraction is instant. However, their romance is complicated by the fact Sylvie is already reluctantly engaged to a man away at war.
The two embark on a relationship but go their separate ways — only to reunite following a chance encounter years later. Eugene Ashe, director and writer, was inspired to create Sylvie’s Love by old photographs of his family from the 1950s.
And, as a former Sony recording artist, he had ready material for Robert and his bandmates. But more than anything else, according to Ashe, the film is about the need to be loved. He said: “I think everyone in the world has the desire to love and to be loved; it is universal.
“At its core, the film is about that universal desire we all have. I hope that people will see themselves in Robert, Sylvie, and their story, and — for two hours, at least — surrender any cynicism they may have about love.”
Ashe also praised the film’s stars for bringing their characters to life. He said: “Throughout this process, I was very lucky to have the incredible partners in Tessa and Nnamdi when crafting their characters. Each brought something unique to them to the film.
“Tessa brought her passion for women’s rights, shown in her character’s transformation from someone who is in an arranged marriage to someone who takes control of her life and makes decisions on her own.”
A former recording artist himself, the score of the film was another important element. Ashe explains: “We were also incredibly lucky to have composer Fabrice Lecomte, who created a lush score as well as the music for the “Dickie Brewster Quartet” in the style of classic bebop.
“I also incorporated songs from my past, specifically the Nancy Wilson songs that my mother listened to when I was growing up. That brought a nostalgic air of romance, which, to me, was both timeless and reminiscent of the era.”
Sylvie’s Love, which streams on Amazon Prime Video, has been acclaimed by critics, a fact that can do no harm to Thompson’s goal of telling more black stories. The summer protests will also almost certainly aid the push for greater representation in Hollywood.
Does Asomugha believe a line has been crossed once and for all? The former professional athlete strikes a cautious — but hopeful — tone. He said: “Hopefully we’ve passed that point but all you’ve got to do is Google this same topic and you’ll see this topic come up every seven years.
“I was looking at an article about (actress) Sheryl Lee Ralph and how come representation is so difficult for black people in film — and it was in 1989. And then there were the fights that were decades before that.
“So it’s ongoing, hopefully there’s a turn now because it really feels like there’s a wave. But this has been something that’s been prevalent for a while. Hopefully we’re able to be a part of the group that’s changing that.” Sylvie’s Love is on Amazon Prime Video on December 23.
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