Double Feature

There's Always Tomorrow January 26, 2021

  

On Sylvie's Love and One Night in Miami

ylvie’s Love, the terrific new movie from writer-director Eugene Ashe, is an old-fashioned romantic drama that meticulously takes after the style

perfected by classic Hollywood melodramatists like Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli. Its emotions run bigger, its visuals are always pushed to their radiant Technicolor limits, and while adversity is inextricable from the narrative, the love at its core makes us believe it could potentially conquer all. Beginning in the summer of 1957, the film covers about five years in the life of the titular Harlemite (a luminous Tessa Thompson) — a period during which she comes into her own both romantically and professionally.

We first get to know her as a young woman still living with her parents. Mom (Erica Gimpel) runs a charm school where Sylvie sometimes models for new students; Dad

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Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha in 2020's "Sylvie's Love."

Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha in 2020's Sylvie's Love.

(Lance Reddick) owns a record shop particularly attuned to jazz at which she does front-desk work. Still not quite sure of herself, Sylvie dreams of someday working in television, perhaps as a producer. (She watches I Love Lucy with the attentiveness of a scientist measuring chemicals.) But she knows that once her upper-crust fiancé Lacy (Alano Miller) completes his military service overseas, a run-of-the-mill domestic life will become the priority. Her fate feels fixed — it’s like she’s waiting for her life to happen to her — until one afternoon, when Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a tenor saxophonist, comes walking into the family record shop, responding to the “Help Wanted” sign perched on the front window. He needs a day job. He walks out with a record — Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners” — in hand and a job to return to the next day. What begins as a friendly rapport between Robert and Sylvie (the new co-workers almost immediately bond over a shared obsession with jazz) transitions into love once the latter sees him play one evening. Her eyes still a little residually wet from the performance, Sylvie tells Robert after the show that she thinks he could be the next John Coltrane.

Cue the requisite complications. Sylvie and Robert begin having a passionate affair; she unexpectedly falls pregnant; Robert and the band he plays with get an offer to play in Paris; Lacy returns. Before we know concretely where any of these conflicts lead, the movie jumps to 1962, and we’re indirectly informed of what has transpired. Sylvie never told Robert about their baby: she didn’t want him to have to choose between fatherhood and his dream career. She and Lacy are now married but not very happily. (When she scores a job at a TV station after so many years of longing for one, he tellingly doesn’t express any happiness because he’s worried it’ll interfere with her domestic duties.) Lacy knows that Sylvie’s child, Michelle, isn’t his, but he’s willing to go along with the charade. 

 

Curveballs keep coming, even when other hopes and dreams manage to come true in tandem with the difficulties. But Sylvie’s Love is above all else a movie that, with as many blows dealt by life as it is, optimistically touts that love can solve many of one’s problems if it’s powerful — and worked hard for — enough. When Sylvie and Robert eventually reunite, we know the movie isn’t going to not reward them. But we also know that what comes next isn’t going to be easy. When Sylvie tells Lacy late in the movie that life is “too short to not do things you absolutely love,” it doubles as a reminder to herself. 

 

Although the film’s complications are unavoidable given the genre it’s working under, they’re pragmatically laid out. Sylvie’s difficulties balancing her professional obligations with her domestic life (Lacy still expects her to do everything a housewife would despite having a full-time job); the rockiness inherent to Robert’s musical career; Lacy’s having to put up with workplace racism if he wants to score big on a major account. Typically in lesser melodramas, dramatic obstacles are thrown in mostly to give stories an extra oomph, usually in a way that feels contrived and trivial — designed more to induce gasps than believably develop the characters. Sylvie’s Love meets the genre’s requirement of an always-moving narrative without taking us to places that do not feel earned. Like life, it’s a mishmash of missed opportunities, rash decisions, internal battles between what one feels and knows is right.

 

One of Ashe’s primary inspirations while writing the film was 1961’s Paris Blues, and you can sense some of its DNA. In that film — which Sylvie’s Love improves on — much dramatic tension arose from what its characters wanted both romantically and professionally versus what they thought was best for them in those areas. Like the secondary leads of Paris Blues, who were played by Sidney Poitier and Diahann Carroll, much of this friction for Sylvie, Robert, and Lacy is additionally inextricable from the realities of being Black in the late ’50s.

 

Douglas Sirk’s ‘50s output singularly juxtaposed an eye-catchingly artificial visual style with comparatively serious themes like racism, homosexuality, classism, and avarice. They were picturesque features whose inner lives were angsty, and cannily — and critically — mirrored the darkness of the era in spite of their exterior perfection. They found truth beneath the synthetic surfaces Hollywood had become eerily proficient at producing in its few decades of existence. Despite their turmoil, Sirk’s movies were so pretty to look at — replete with elegant costuming, fashion-magazine-careful set design, and beautiful people— that you couldn’t help but want to dwell in them a little longer than the runtime of the movie allowed. 

 

Akin to Sirk and descendants of his like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Todd Haynes (the latter of whom cleverly repurposed the classic Hollywood melodrama mold with 2002’s Far From Heaven and 2015’s Carol), Ashe is working with the classic soap-opera form pointedly — and well. He’s a Black filmmaker directing an almost entirely Black cast in a film harkening back to a white-dominant style of moviemaking, where Black actors and stories were usually put in its margins if included at all.

 

In a recent interview with Screen Rant, Ashe said he was initially inspired to make the movie after seeing family photos from the ‘50s. As he looked at the images, he thought about how when those relatives posed, there weren’t really any films for them to go to that depicted everyday Black lives. (And if there were, they weren’t ones that didn’t stress experiences of racism above mostly everything else.) Sylvie’s Love is enjoyable and escapist especially in how it presents romance — there’s a measured richness to Ashe’s storytelling — but pleasure dovetails with a sense of loss. One thinks about what cinema history might have looked like had a filmmaker like Ashe gotten as many opportunities as Sirk did in his heyday, and if during the period Black stories had been brought to the screen with its same texture and care. In Sylvie’s Love, style only enhances the substance.

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ne Night in Miami, Regina King’s excellent directorial debut, is a gripping speculative drama about how an evening between four famous friends (Malcolm X, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and

Cassius Clay) universally in a moment of transition might have unfolded. The movie predominantly takes place in February, 1964, and is based on a play by Kemp Powers. It doesn’t change setting much — most of it is set inside a hotel room — but it never feels stagebound. Hall’s acutely compassionate direction, paired with astonishing performances from its four leads (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Eli Goree), brings us into the room with these men. All are mulling over, with different versions of apprehension and urgency, the next stages of their lives and careers as Black public figures. (Ben-Adir is particularly good — he uncannily epitomizes Malcolm’s recognizable bluster and tenor without giving in to the easiness of rudimental imitation.)

You know where these men would head next. Malcolm would shortly afterward leave the Nation of Islam; Clay would convert to Islam, change his name, and amplify a predilection for activism; Brown would abandon his football career for one in the movies; and Cooke started to more seriously imbue his music with the socially conscious (“A Change is Gonna Come” being one of the first products). But the narrative doesn’t plod with inevitability. For a couple of hours everything feels possible as much as everything feels like it could come crashing down at any moment. It’s like we were there. 

Sylvie's Love: A

One Night in Miami: A-