Years Of Traumatic Black Love Stories Left Me Emotionally Unprepared For The Normalcy Of Sylvie’s Love
When watching the opening credits of Sylvie's Love for the first time, I was noticeably tense because I was nervous about the cinematic journey I was embarking on. Early trailers of the Amazon Studios original film teased a breathtaking story about two Black young people living and loving in the 1950s and 60s, which almost guaranteed that something terrible would happen. Being Black in America has always been hard, and the Jim Crow days were especially tumultuous for obvious reasons. Surely someone in the film would be lynched by the Klu Klux Klan, violently jailed during a march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or at least denied their basic civil rights. Surely.
So I settled in for the movie, jaw tight and fists clenched, as I waited for something traumatic to inevitably happen. Scene after scene passed, but the trauma never came. There was only a tender romance — and a really good one at that.
Written and directed by Eugene Ashe, Sylvie's Love follows the gentle love story between Sylvie (Tessa Thompson) and Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha), a mismatched pair who find themselves entangled in a complicated romance during a hot Harlem summer in 1957. Sparks fly between the star-crossed lovers at first sight, but their relationship isn't as straightforward as one might expect. Sylvie comes from a bougie, middle-class family, while Robert is of the blue collar variety and has big dreams of becoming a legendary jazz musician. To make things worse, Sylvie's got a whole fiancé pining over her across the seas in South Korea.
On screen, Sylvie and Robert's relationship naturally blossoms in a way that is remarkable because it's so...normal. By "normal," I'm not insinuating that their interaction is ordinary by any means. On the contrary, our leads' initial romantic chemistry and subsequent love for each other feels like actual magic. At times, the couple is adorably tentative with each other, stealing earnest glances and bashfully hiding their cheeky grins — Asomugha is especially skilled at delivering an eager but very careful leading man who you just know can (respectfully) blow your back out — and at others, they are hot-blooded lovers openly relishing in their feelings for each other. What we’re seeing is a classic romance film, and it’s absolutely swoon-worthy.
Even after my third (or tenth) watch, that's what makes Sylvie's Love so disarming; it's literally just about two Black people falling in love. A plot this straightforward shouldn't be so groundbreaking in 2020, but the unfortunate reality is that Hollywood still shies away from such a basic, fool-proof concept when Black people are involved. In film, Black love stories seldom have the privilege of being just love stories — they're usually tinged with enough trauma to leave you more heartbroken than hopeful.
With rare exceptions like Barry Jenkins' Moonlight, Stella Meghie's The Photograph, and Zora Howard's Premature, many of the modern Black love stories have been more marked by trauma than actual romance. Queen & Slim, the hyped collaboration between Lena Waithe and Melina Matsoukas, saw Jodie Turner and Daniel Kaluuya's doomed coupling on the run from police; their one sex scene was utterly ruined by cuts of a young Black boy being brutally murdered by the police during a protest. In true James Baldwin fashion, If Beale Street Could Talk was a stunning but devastating exploration of how systemic racism so often ruins everything for Black people.
And when Black people weren't being subjected to outright bigotry and violence on film, the relationships depicted were low-key toxic and the complete opposite of #CoupleGoals. Sure, we all love Quincy and Monica (Love & Basketball) and even once dreamed about having a spark like Darius and Nina's (Love Jones), but let's keep it real: those romances were rough.
Watching Romance While Black so often lends to a troubling filmic experience because love, healthy and affirming love, typically takes the backseat to other elements even in projects categorized as Black love stories. Racism and all of its painful real-life consequences tend to take center stage in the narrative, soiling what should be a beautiful account by focusing on the ugliest, most extreme parts of the Black experience. Meet-cutes, longing stares, breathless kisses, and other essentials of the romance formula don't get to shine because the lovers are too busy being weighed down by trauma.
Having lived through so much trauma porn, fictional or otherwise, Sylvie’sLove rightfully feels like the balm to soothe our years of on-screen hurt. Withthe focus shifted away from the pangs of white supremacy and Black suffering withoutlosing the historical context that the plot is grounded in, Sylvie’s Lovesees Sylvie and Robert pursuing each other freely, their only barriers beingthe typical misunderstandings and timing issues that any other couple mightface. It’s not perfect — I personally wouldn’t have minded a little more sexy timeor moreRegé-Jean Page — but the film does exactly what it set out to do with graceand elegance: tell a story about two Black people finding their soulmates.
Sylvie's Love is now available for streaming, only on Amazon Prime.