“Here am I, patiently waiting/ Hoping and longing O, how I yearn/ Where are you, are you forgetting/ Do you remember, will you return” – “I Cover the Waterfront”, Lyrics: Edward Heyman, Composer: Johnny Green
*[NOTE: I saw Sylvie’s Love during an online advanced screening on the 17th of December 2020.]
It seems oddly appropriate that not only was an old-fashioned Black romance film the last film I saw in a cinema, but so too was the last “new” film I saw for the year. Too bad the latter film tries to hard to pull off what the former did so effortlessly.
I still haven’t seen Wonder Woman 1984, yet I find myself saying the same thing about this movie that people have been saying about that one: “It had so much going for it!” Like the aforementioned The Photograph, the new film Sylvie’s Love is a throwback to a quieter sort of romance film that happens to have Black folks as the romantic leads. The difference between the two is that The Photograph took its sweet time to let us fall in love alongside the characters; Sylvie’s Love treats time like a game of hopscotch.
It begins in media res – which would have been a great way to start a film, had it actually paid off in any way later – before flashing back to young musician Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha) landing a regular job to pay bills. The job in question is at the music shop of Mr. Jay (Lance Reddick) alongside his musicophile daughter, the titular Sylvie (Tessa Thompson). The two youngsters have the typical “Will they/won’t they?” butting of heads until they eventually get together.
What’s more interesting is the fact that Sylvie is not only a character of ambition, but chock-full of the determination to put her plans into motion. She keeps a small tv at the store counter – how common were those in the late-1950s? – and watches it not to veg out, but to study. She wants to work in television. Her story of wanting to work as a tv exec (she eventually lands a job at a local station) is some of the film’s most compelling storytelling, especially when contrasted with Robert’s hopes of becoming a professional musician. That’s why shortchanging them feels so disappointing.
The film takes place in the New York of the late-‘50s to the mid-‘60s and focusses on two Black characters. That means the story has to address the era’s racism, which was far more open than it is today. (Kinda.) Instead, writer/director Eugene Ashe treats racism as this minor annoyance that pops up every now and then, but never in an ugly, malicious fashion. When Sylvie and her husband host a white couple, the wife makes an “innocent” comment about the husband being “one of the good ones” which Sylvie brushes off. Sylvie’s first job is working on a cooking show for a white woman (Wendy McLendon-Covey) who easily incorporates the former’s ideas without taking credit herself of using any epithets.
Did I mention that this film is set in the ‘50s and ‘60s, ie. the start of the Civil Rights Movement? For a Black director to brush this aside is irresponsible, especially since his two leads work in the arts. Maybe you didn’t notice, but Black Americans have always been very upfront about their experiences with racism – especially during the Civil Rights Era!
What’s more, there are potentially intriguing explorations of institutional sexism that also get glossed over. In particular, Sylvie’s prim ‘n proper mother considers Robert – who couldn’t be more polite and well-spoken – uncouth because he’s a blues musician, an unbecoming suitor for a debutante.
All of the pieces are there for both a compelling story of Black love set against the backdrop of an America in upheaval – something that resonates all the more today. Unfortunately, Ashe isn’t up to the task. He wastes his talented cast and knowledge of classic jazz on a script that breezes through history in an unnecessary hurry. Doing so gives its leads only a tangential connection to said history, despite the fact that it informs everything around them.
And they are good performances. Former pro athlete Nnamdi Asomugha isn’t the greatest actor in the world, but he isn’t terrible. Let me put it this way: a month ago, I rewatched Spike Lee’s He Got Game, and I’m happy to say that Asomugha’s performance is leaps and bounds above Ray Allen’s infamously wooden delivery. Tessa Thompson is… Tessa Thompson. It’s no surprise that she’s so in-demand these days: she’s a talented performer with an unmistakable on-screen charisma that’s she’s shown in low-budget indies (like so) and Marvel blockbusters. A supporting cast of Lance Reddick, Aja Naomi King, Wendy McLendon-Covey, and Eva Longoria (whom I didn’t even recognize) make this all the more pleasant a viewing experience.
The problem is that as great as it all looks and sounds (Ashe directs with an appropriately light hand, and Declan Quinn’s 16mm cinematography gives the film a period-appropriate look), the words are spoken from narrative necessity rather than sincere character growth.
Sylvie’s Love is a masterclass in Black film-making contradictions: it is, without a doubt, exactly the very kind of movie we need more of. The problem? It’s not a great movie.