It’s hard not to feel bittersweet when watching “Sylvie’s Love,” the Eugene Ashe-directed romantic drama available now on Amazon Prime Video. The story is familiar: Tessa Thompson plays the titled heroine living in 1950s Harlem, torn between following societal expectations, living her dreams of being a television producer, or maintaining a relationship with a talented jazz musician (played by Nnamdi Asomugha). However, to watch its fully lived-in and elegant creation of the 1950s is to imagine it existing in the time period it’s set. Had Hollywood been more inclusive, this could have been a starring vehicle for Dorothy Dandridge.
Thompson herself is often compared to the great Black actresses of the past: Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne, and the aforementioned Dandridge. But in talking to Thompson she’s shocked to hear it. “This is the first time I’m hearing this,” she laughingly toldIndieWire. “I’m flattered; I stand on the shoulders of so many giants.” Thompson said a huge reference point for her performance was Caroll in the 1961 feature “Paris Blues.”
Historically, the storytelling formula of a woman forced to choose between life and love has been the realm of white women. Thompson said it compelled her to look at her own past as a film lover. “When you look at Hollywood iconography, certainly for me growing up I was very accustomed to following a white protagonist,” she said.
One of the biggest impediments to stories like “Sylvie’s Love,” according to Thompson, is the misguided belief that they “don’t travel,” or access audiences that aren’t the same racial makeup as the characters. “If I can, as a child, follow a white protagonist and feel inside of the narrative, then it should stand that we can follow good stories and see ourselves in them,” she said. Thompson doesn’t want the message of the movie to get wrapped up too heavily in diversity discussions, but she hopes the film will foster a push towards telling stories about lives that otherwise wouldn’t necessarily be discussed.
“Something that gets lost in these conversations is diversity of thought and representation,” she said. “I want to see stories with folks that have typically been on the margins in all ways.” When it comes to depictions of Black people specifically, Thompson said there needs to be similar diversity. “We’re not a monolith, and so we shouldn’t be presented as one in media.” Sylvie and Robert’s relationship in the film is accessible to all, yet the characters happen to be Black. Similarly, the film wanted to emphasize Sylvie being compared to women of the era, and the societal expectations, as opposed to the overt romance.
Thompson dived into researching the 1950s world Ashe created, especially with regards to how Black women were perceived in media. She sayidAshe provided the cast with an extensive list of films for them to draw from including “The Way We Were” to “Carol.” Thompson said she also derived inspiration from glamour magazines of the time. “It was a very interesting time for women in the beginning of the women’s liberation movement,” she said.
Analyzing journalism aimed at women of the time period brought up questions as to how media shapes what women should want. “I found it interesting to look at popular media of that time and think about this young woman who’s trying to become the woman of her dreams [and] what she’s been told by society at large about what she should be,” she said.
Having done several period pieces at this point — and next year she’ll have another one with Rebecca Hall’s adaptation of “Passing” — Thompson said doing this one was different because of how enmeshed Ashe made the feature. “I’ve always been interested in things that are old,” she said, starting with looking at old photos of her grandparents while sitting in her grandmother’s closet. She says one of the happy accidents of production was that the film couldn’t shoot on location in New York because of Thompson’s “Westworld” schedule.
“We ended up having to shoot in Los Angeles, which meant we needed to capture the feeling of New York, this bygone era of New York, and we were able to do it [on] these Hollywood backlots,” she said. “It gave the film such specificity. It feels like those Old Hollywood films, whereas if we had actually gotten the chance to shoot in New York it would have been slightly grittier and it gave it a glossy feel. That wasn’t something that was necessarily in the DNA of the project initially, but it really helps the film. It’s fun to imagine if we centered Black folks more at that time what sort of films would come to be?”
Courtesy of Amazon Studios
Thompson has been blazing a trail over the last several years, championing the need for diverse critics reviewing her films and working with Time’s Up to boost opportunities for female filmmakers. “It’s always felt natural for me to work with women,” she said whether that’s her work with Tina Mabry in 2009’s “Mississippi Damned” or her “Little Woods” director Nia DaCosta. She said her work as an actress gives her a unique platform to elevate women directors.
“Something that I’m really interested in now….is the ways in which I can leverage whatever sort of power I have to get more women in the director’s chair or the camera department,” she said. Might this extend to Thompson herself taking a turn behind the camera? “It’s something I’ve certainly thought a lot about doing over the course of my career and it’s certainly something I have aspirations to do at some point,” she said.
For Thompson, it’s hard not to draw on the Black actresses of the past in this feature and opine about what might have been. “It’s not lost on me that I literally would not be able to do what I do now if there weren’t all of those women before me,” she said. “‘Sylvie’s Love’ likes imagining what kinds of stories could have existed had Hollywood been more interested at the time in all these incredible women of color.”
“Sylvie’s Love” is available on Amazon Prime Video now.