Filmmaker Eugene Ashe had an unexpectedly revolutionary concept for his new feature film: a sweeping, high-glam love story about a Black couple in the 1960s that assiduously did not revolve around the civil rights movement or Black trauma. Meanwhile, NFL cornerback turned actor Nnamdi Asomugha was painstakingly looking for a breakout role, something so unique and challenging that he’d ultimately also sign on as a producer.
Amazon’s Sylvie’s Love united the pair’s formidable efforts — as well as those of leading lady Tessa Thompson — to create a refreshing romance that intentionally evokes the glossy melodrama of classic Hollywood. The collaborators joined THR for a conversation about their commitment to get everything recognizably right and to tell a story audiences hadn’t seen before.
Tell me about the beginnings of your collaboration, which began well before cameras rolled.
NNAMDI ASOMUGHA A friend of mine who was also a friend of Eugene’s sent me the script. I read it, fell in love with it. The next day, we were on a call. I just wanted to make sure Eugene saw the film the way I was seeing the film, so all my questions to him were leading questions. From the start, it felt like we were sharing a brain. He was just knocking everything out of the park.
EUGENE ASHE He knew what it was we were trying to do. We’d just been through so many people who just couldn’t see it: “Pshaw — the nerve of you trying to make a movie set during the civil rights era that doesn’t speak to the struggle.” I was like, “Well, we’ve had a lot of those already, so let’s do one that focuses on our humanity.” He got that from the beginning.
ASOMUGHA Seeing that Eugene wanted to tell a story like this where it’s focused on Black people falling in love and there’s not all of the trauma throughout the piece made it different and special to me. That was the hook — that it wasn’t following the company line and the societal norms of what films we need to put out as Black people, or as people in general.
Influences from both film and music permeate Sylvie’s Love. Talk about sharing the movies and the music that helped shape your vision.
ASHE I had a long list of movies to watch and music to listen to that informed what it was that we were doing. Jazz was really the soundtrack of that era. You wouldn’t really know that from watching something like Mad Men, but Black people were everywhere. The same way that Barack and Michelle Obama had these parties at the White House, the Kennedys were having parties with Diahann Carroll singing. Think of the Miles Davis albums, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan. We didn’t have our day in film, with the exception of a few things like Paris Blues and A Man Called Adam. It just never really popped for us. [The cast] watched all of that stuff, but not just movies with Black folks, movies with white folks, like Butterfield 8, just to get the glamour of the era. There was a tone that they had — it was super slick.
ASOMUGHA Even when I watched Paris Blues, which I watched a million times preparing for this, I took on a lot of Paul Newman, as opposed to Sidney Poitier. I went in wanting to grab everything from Sidney in terms of style and posture, and it turned out to be Paul Newman I connected to.
ASHE Here we are in the early 1960s, and we’re showing a way Black people and white people interact with each other, one that we’ve never seen. Every time we look at a movie set in the past, it’s white folks hosing us down or siccing dogs on us. But look at Martin Luther King’s funeral: You see Charlton Heston and Paul Newman. There was a coming together of the races. White people used to dance just as much as Black people, you know? So we wanted the white folks to be really hip in the movie, too.
How did shooting a New York-set film in L.A. help evoke that romantic, stylized look of classic Hollywood productions?
ASHE Originally, we were going to shoot in upstate New York. There are neighborhoods that look like Harlem, have a bunch of brownstones. [But] Tessa [only] had February available. You can’t shoot a movie set in the summer in New York in February. We needed to shoot in Los Angeles. Nnamdi was like, “I just don’t see how that’s going to work.” But once we got on the backlots and saw downtown L.A. and some of those great old theaters down there, it actually looks more like New York in 1962 than New York does.
ASOMUGHA Then Eugene was having these flashbacks. “Wait — this is where they shot Mahogany or Lady Sings the Blues. Oh, we can do this. It is New York.” That actually lends beautifully to the aesthetic of the film and the homage that we’re giving to that period. Being able to shoot on those lots was really a happy accident.
ASHE And that’s the idea: We’re trying to give you the fantasy of what it was like. We just had to lean into the Hollywood-ness of it, and it became this otherworldly experience where all of these beautiful, happy accidents were happening. I believe in the film gods, and one time our truck didn’t come and we needed a wet-down for the street and then it just started pouring rain. I was walking around saying, “Jesus is our wet-down.” We knew it was going to be a magical night when that happened.
Your film came out in the wake of this huge real-world cultural conversation concerned with Black trauma, but people embraced the vision you presented. What did that response mean to you?
ASHE First of all, I think we all were fatigued by the trauma. After our Sundance screening, we were just like, “Wow — we really have something.” We left very confident, and then the pandemic hit. We didn’t really know what was going to happen. Everything was escalating with the Black Lives Matter movement and all of this police brutality stuff. We still maintained that it was going to be the thing that was going to help soothe some of this.
ASOMUGHA Because those two things aren’t mutually exclusive: It’s all Black life. We do have the trauma, but we also have these loving moments. When you can get to the end of a year like that, and you can see a film that’s all about Black love, it’s definitely a balm, not just to our community but to all the communities that were experiencing what that year meant.
ASHE One woman wrote she was watching it through her hands because she was waiting for the trauma to hit, waiting for [Nnamdi’s] Robert to be a heroin addict and die.
ASOMUGHA Someone said when Robert gets in the car to go to Detroit, they were like, “Oh, he’s going to get pulled over by the cops. He’s going to get killed. He’s going to get in a car accident.” We’re like, “No, that was in no draft of the script. That wasn’t a thought.”
ASHE Questlove said on Instagram that he didn’t know that it was the thing that he needed, but it was the thing that he needed. People watched it, their whole families were watching it together, because there’s an intergenerational thing to it. We have the grandma and the mother and the 15-year-old daughter watching it together, and the grandma could say, “That’s exactly what it was like.”
ASOMUGHA Because what would it have been like for grandma to have that film back then, to be able to see herself in that light back then? And all the dances that they would go to and all the ways they would dress up? We did have some films, but it would have been pretty special for them to see themselves in that light back then. So to get it now, I think that’s why it resonates so much with them.
ASHE I was getting DMs and emails that were like, “Finally, somebody did it! We got one. It’s an instant classic.” All of these things that we had hoped that it would be. It hit people, definitely.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.