Tessa Thompson, Nnamdi Asomugha, Eva Longoria, Aja Naomi King, Wendi McLendon-Covey
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It’s nothing revolutionary as a romance (and arguably, could’ve taken more risks), but as a somewhat-revisionist throwback to classic cinema, at a time when nostalgia feels like an essential service, it’s a highly pleasant experience worth having.
This New York-set jazz romance may not be strictly sci-fi, but its genesis as a production carries that tone; a trip back to the late ‘50s-early ‘60s Hollywood system, but one that allowed for Black creatives to control the narrative and tell their own stories. The classic production values, music sensibilities, understanding of dramatic catharsis – just refracted through a perspective that historically didn’t get its fair due. This was how writer/producer/director Eugene Ashe pitched this feature to star Tessa Thompson, and credit to them both, they managed to pull off that vibe.
Spearheaded by Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha as two star-crossed lovers, their romance feels both nostalgic and distinctly modern. Rustic studio backlots meet advanced cinematography. Vintage jazz standards meet Nick Hornby-esque conversational zeal. Conflicted Golden Age emotionality meets Method-with-a-capital-M acting. It’s a harmonious mixture that avoids being either try-hard or out-of-touch.
It also makes for an interesting look at intersectionality that also doesn’t feel misplaced in either timeframe. While incorporating certain romantic tropes that were not served particularly well in either (the disposable love interest, the liar revealed, etc.), the way that the standards of ‘polite society’ play into the narrative certainly put the ‘class’ in ‘classy’. Men and women needing to fulfill specific roles, like the influence of Sylvie’s etiquette-teaching mother on how her relationship ‘looks’ to other people, along with the continuing pretences of spousal relationships that seem so strained as to exist only for their convenience. It’s nothing new, but considering how much catching up remains for cinematic representation, it becomes new.
That disconnect between what is seen and what is known runs through the veins of the entire production, starting with a humorously relatable moment with two broken television sets compensating for each other. As Thompson’s Sylvie and Asomugha’s Robert search for meaningful employment in television and music respectively, we see the reality behind all the swooning jazz: Black people backstage, white people on the stage, Black artists under the thumb of white managers, Black TV producers whose work props up the white presenters, Black experience that isn’t deemed important enough to be highlighted by those who bathe in the spotlight. It turns the production impetus into chewier thematic subtext, further highlighting the injustice of how this wasn’t normalised long before now.
Much like Crazy Rich Asians, Sylvie’s Love uses tried-and-tested cinematic and romantic conventions to show that everyone’s wants and desires really aren’t that different at the end of the day. It’s nothing revolutionary as a romance (and arguably, could’ve taken more risks), but as a somewhat-revisionist throwback to classic cinema, at a time when nostalgia feels like an essential service, it’s a highly pleasant experience worth having.