Sylvie’s Love is Pretty as a Picture
A Mid-Century Melodrama as Ancestral Reverence
“It just really came down to looking at pictures of my family from that time and feeling like those photographs of Black life really told a different story than I had seen depicted in other films. Most of the time when we have films set in the ’60s, they…focus on the civil rights movement or a traumatic event, so I…felt like I wanted to tell a story with these glamorous, elegant people I saw in my family photo albums.”Writer-director Eugene Ashe
No matter the family home that I wandered in childhood, there was always a coffee table, credenza or bookcase filled with photo albums.
In my relative’s tract houses, faces and fabrics adorned living and family room walls and the fairy tales they represented were quite real. Those empire-waisted gowns, sharkskin suits and Buick “Deuce and a Quarters” were not fantasy. Hell, those suits and gowns were still moldering in closets scented with mothballs when I was a kid. Oldsmobiles and Cadillacs collected dust in garages, languishing beneath boxes filled with cousins’ sportsball uniforms.
I recall opening the doors of these hibernating cars, smelling the perfume of vinyl and foam, and sinking into the physical world that they represented, my imagination filling with mid-century home interiors, fabrics, and books. Such reveries played like movies soundtracked by Nancy Wilson or Dinah Washington, Marvin Gaye at his princeliest, Nat King Cole a legit king. I couldn’t wait to fit the clothes and the cinematic fantasies unspooling in my head were of the domestic sort. Playing house. Picking up kids at school. Running to get groceries. A picnic in the park. Chrome trim and AM radios made for sparkly movie palaces.
The pictures in the albums were equally “boring,” day-in-the-life-of shots lit by just the right light, inspired by plain old life. For the households still sustaining a “healthy” marriage, or the merry widows in the family, a wedding album always served as the centerpiece, an altar which other photographs supported, a banal core set in place by the concept that love holds everything together.
Forty-one years after the day, twenty-seven years after the dream came to an end, my parents’ wedding album still sits in a coffee table cubby at my dad’s house, resting on a pile of quotidian memories. Christmases. New cars and couches. Football games played in the middle of our surprisingly calm street. My first time catching a catfish in Clearlake. Midnight, a German Shepherd who belonged to the Fosters, sticking his tongue out in glee in the back of their GMC pick-up. Our kitchen’s vibrant wallpaper. Good lord, my potty training photos.
This is not the stuff of Instagram selfies. We now curate our existences to show only the best of ourselves. We become products instead of individuals learning to shit or mow the lawn.
We never reveal ourselves in the process of becoming human.
The world of tract homes shot by Polaroid Land Cameras, a time and place where my mom and her sister road matching Schwinns, is one I got to know personally though I lived in its exhaust fumes. Working to white collar Black people still ritualized the everyday with Canon Sure Shots well into the early 90’s, but the world around us had changed. The suburbs that policy makers allowed us into were the closest to urban decay, redlined so we couldn’t continue up the ladder to secure more capitalist riches.
At least the furniture didn’t get regularly updated to the horrors of McMansion hell.
Black people don’t share white people’s fervor for mid-century modern decor because our grandparents or parents had those furnishings. Venus De Milo oil lamps and sunburst clocks lingered by portraits of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, figures frozen in amber alongside photos shot by instant cameras or a 35 millimeter. These artifacts preserve some of the hopes that neoconservative movements continuously crushed over a span of fifty years. There’s little difference between the outright evil of Nixon versus the covert evil of Clinton, Obama and now Biden. Time slowed, and in some ways froze. What changed was the art, the music on the radio, the clothes on our backs and the cars in the driveway.
If you pay attention only to white popular culture and media, you’d think that Black people didn’t have mundane ass lives circa 1961. Didn’t have mundane lives ever according to the “American experience.” Some of us have photographic evidence to the contrary and some of us don’t. Not every family had disposable resources to assert that they were “here,” and if you never bothered paging through the photo albums, if you didn’t engage with curiosity, inviting your elders to share the stories behind the pictures, you might still think that the only events happening from 1950 to ‘60-something were German Shepherd attacks and the direct confrontation of racial segregation. Absent is the everyday melodrama of belonging to a Black family.
When we are granted positive representation beyond the civil rights movement, it is our successes as athletes or entertainers that are emphasized. Outside the scope of political activism, white popular culture and media easily persuades audiences that the bulk of Black existence was being trapped in subpar housing and working back breaking jobs. Because of this misrepresentation, some of us might be convinced that a dull existence filling out Excel spreadsheets or working in a call center some sixty-five years later is better. One might think leading a diversity and inclusion training will finally change the world.
And, one might be forgiven for believing these things.
From Imitation of Life to Far From Heaven, from Mad Men to our current mid-century masturbatory fantasy, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Black people have no lives of their own. These artifacts fail to represent our communities in their entirety. Media representation and storytelling rarely allow us opportunities to be more than wise Greek choruses bemoaning the emptiness of white identity, even when that whiteness tries to assert that it, too, is other. Johnny Mathis, for example, would never have had a Joan Rivers doppelgänger open for him and protect him from queerbashing with a weaponized brisket.
Rivers didn’t appear at the Apollo until 2007.
I googled it.
The white collective consciousness renders the richness of the mundane a luxury. It only belongs to those who deserve it, turning it into a “Whites-Only” fountain of ordinary pleasures. In the 1959 film Imitation of Life, stardom goes to actress Lora Meredith, played by Lana Turner. Meanwhile, Lora’s housekeeper, Annie Johnson, played by Juanita Moore, can go straight to the great beyond, denied the love of her daughter, absurdly played by Jewish Mexican-American actress Susan Kohner. Annie’s greatest accomplishment is her funeral; Mahalia Jackson is the headliner after all.
In cable television’s more recent Mad Men, copywriter Peggy Olson, played by Elizabeth Moss, can’t believe her secretary Shirley, played by Sola Bamis, has a boyfriend enamored enough to send her a dozen long-stemmed roses on Valentine’s Day. Peggy foolishly claims the bouquet as her own and later berates Shirley, offended that the secretary would dare to be Black and in love in a fictionalized 1968 Manhattan. These two representations embody the adage “All I have to do is ‘Stay Black and Die'” as Hollywood uses and discards the mundane Black experience.
Yes, there have been moments in this desert of popular media representation. Most of these exist as time capsules from the era they represent rather than nostalgic retrospectives. The 1961 film Paris Blues spends significant screen time dealing with white main characters in its titular French city. To encourage white viewership, it extends the tourist fantasia of love found in Europe, a film tradition that served titles as diverse as Roman Holiday (1953), To Catch a Thief (1955) and It Started in Naples (1960). Less controversial than Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor were the equally glamorous Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward fresh off of their technicolor soap opera From The Terrace (1960).
Paris Blues offers early crossover heartthrob Sidney Poitier along with the epitome of Black glamour in the early 60’s, Diahann Carroll, who was then poised to receive a Tony Award. The film promoted to Black audiences that life was a little easier for Negros in Paris, portraying the very real phenomenon of Black American musicians entering through the door opened by Josephine Baker. From blues to disco, these musicians found willing audiences in smoke-filled nightclubs that treated their art, if not their bodies, with one-dimensional respect.
More often than not, visiting Black artists would be stuck in a never ending cycle of low paying gigs, unstable lives due to grueling tour schedules, and managers and booking agents that ripped them off in diverse languages.
The novel that inspired Paris Blues, and the first draft of the script, aren’t about “Black love” abroad. Instead, the book focuses on interracial relationships and the indifferent performances turned in by Poitier and Carroll perhaps sprung from the real life couple’s own challenges with courtship. Poitier reflected that United Artists got “cold feet,” stating that the studio shied away from the “revolutionary” concept of co-mingling the races in one of the most romantic cities on earth. The film left Black audiences with a stale lie. The moribund performances had no chance of breathing life into a script that had no respect for the mundanity of two Black people falling in love.
Music is also a main character in the 1964 film Nothing But a Man. The film opens with the blast of Martha and the Vandellas’ sensuous smash hit “Heatwave,” giving way to various lesser known Motown songs about heartbreak, including the Vandellas “This Is When I Need You Most.” As the drama ripens, and romance loses its petals to everyday strife, the soundtrack participating in the storytelling as much, if not more, than the cast. Romance ultimately sours to the tune of the Vandellas first hit, “Come and Get These Memories.”
Longing, obsession, and familial trauma weave through the plot of Nothing But a Man. Its docu-realist style flirts with the pessimistic in ways that white movies of the era didn’t. It shows reality after the splendor of falling in love, the resulting pregnancies that lead to new mouths to feed. In its Black Southern household, both spouses work, the husband at whatever he can find, the teacher-wife laboring hard despite wishes from her parents that she not marry “below her station.” We might be tempted to restrict our memory of Motown Music to the Temptations’ “My Girl” but there’s a different stance portrayed by the Supremes’ “He Holds His Own,” a lover who stands proud despite grim realities.
Nothing But a Man received contemporary critical acclaim and in 1993, it was added to the United States National Film Registry. Its inclusion in the Library of Congress is damning. The only celebrated Black film of its time, one notably directed by a white German, Michael Roemer, and with a Teutonic iciness that defuses much of the incendiary interplay between stars Ivan Dixon and Abbey Lincoln, Nothing But a Man is seen as culturally significant because it is harsh, real, and devoid of joy for the majority of its run time.
Love stories produced by and for white people during the early 1960’s tend to be filled with themes, plots, and characters that are likely to elicit laughter and cringes today. When’s the last time you were able to stomach the absurdity of Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Doris Day’s career woman-meets-housewife in The Thrill of It All or Shirley MacLaine’s woe-is-me I’m the richest widow in the world in What A Way To Go!? Aside from the wardrobe and furniture, what redeems them? They’re also profoundly divorced from the popular culture that shaped them. These films were made during an era when white women voluntarily returned to the workforce in the midst of post-war prosperity.
Representations of Black love, Black women, and Black people were, and continue to be, few and far between. These instances are often reduced to two and a half minute love songs that shrink to snippets hummed by the popular consciousness and these fragments remain largely controlled by white media. There were Dionne Warwick’s defiant early hits, produced with income the Shirelles generated for bored Jewish housewife Florence Greenberg. There was Phil Spector turning the Righteous Brothers into mainstream superstars, telling four-minute-long blue-eyed soul melodramas based on the lessons he learned with the Crystals and Darlene Love. The producer secured “racially ambiguous” Ronnie Spector as his own prisoner of love in the process. Even today, many people see Phil Spector as the auteur of the decade, ignoring the hundreds of Black voices that made Motown such a catchall phrase for Black popular music of the decade. When it comes to Motown sound, it seems to matter less whether or not the company produced it, and if musical representation is this flattened, what can we make of visual media representation? How does this filter through the thousands of movies, the hours of television, the magazines beyond old dog-eared copies of Ebony, Jet or Hue?
In the United States, proof of life is codified by scanned film, imagery, and cinematic representation.
Eugene Ashe wrote, directed and co-produced the recently released to Amazon streaming Sylvie’s Love. It’ll probably come and pass without much notice by the vast majority of people consuming holiday entertainment. It’s buried under the typical onslaught of year end films, the chaos and trauma that was the hellscape of 2020.
“So it’s not a fantasyland? ‘Cause the ads all make it look like it is.”
“It’s not just a Hamilton-ied Mad Men like the ads make it out to be then?”
Those are the typical reactions I get when I try to explain the film to someone white. Incredulity at the possibility that it has any grounding in vintage reality. It stands in the pallid shadow of Pixar’s Soul. It’ll get ignored in favor of the true-to-life interpretation of events served by One Night in Miami. It isn’t brazen and full of bravado like Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a revisioning of a 1927 blues recording session turned tragic. The latter two have roots in live theatre, or as some say, “real art,” before they jumped to screen.
Set in a flashback during the summer of 1957 before returning to 1962 on the cusp of ‘63, Sylvie’s Love is the kind of film that honors its predecessors. It evokes the ambiance of Nothing But a Man while allowing for the fantasy of Paris Blues to happen on US soil. White people are pushed to the edges of the narrative where they become comic villains and foils. Such characters include predatory managers like the aforementioned Florence Greenberg who carried out an extramarital affair with singer-producer Luther Dixon until he started his own record company in 1963. Sylvie’s Love relegates whiteness to its rightful place: This isn’t Harlem gentrified by our concepts of unity twenty years into the 21st century.
Tessa Thompson plays shopgirl Sylvie Parker, and Lance Riddick plays her father, Mr. Jay. He owns a Harlem record store full of jazz albums and Mr. Jay’s shop is portrayed realistically, right down to thhise lack of clientele. Black customers would have been shopping for Ray Charles, LaVern Baker and Jackie Wilson because urban Negros on the move didn’t have time for Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and to a degree, Charlie Parker. Executive Berry Gordy famously watched his jazz record store go out of business as Black urban tastes changed.
The shoppers in this world lookout for Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson and they live in self-contained, vibrant communities. White people of the era were exquisitely carried from workplaces and shopping districts in Manhattan to their ranch homes in Rye, White Plains and Tarrytown by Robert Moses’s civil engineering projects. They only see slums and darkness as they gaze out of train windows and panoramic windshields belonging to Detroit confections of the four-wheeled variety. Their eyes look forward to the comforts of their conformist cul-de-sacs.
Sylvie’s Love makes no room for white saviors like Tracy Turnblad.
There’s no John Waters here to neuter R&B legend Ruth Brown, to make her uplift a white girl from across town before she uplifts her own daughter. There’s no white fantasy that Motormouth Maybelle would have let her son Seaweed risk his life to pursue a white woman in Baltimore circa 1962. The place was still below-the-Mason-Dixon line.
In Sylvie’s Love, we hold each encounter with white people with knowing suspicion. We know that when an aristocratic blonde offers five hundred dollars to spruce up the image of a band, she is making an investment and she expects returns, twenty percent of whatever top dollar they are able to command for performances. She also claims a quarter of the band, giving extra attention and “fringe benefits” to the aptly named “Dickie” Brewster, a musician played by Tone Bell.
Sylvie leaves the record store as she pursues a career in television, Ryan Michelle Bathe playing Kate Spencer, Sylvie’s “surprise” Black boss at the studio. Spencer knows it isn’t wise to allow the ribald off-camera persona of white “everywoman” chef Lucy Wolper make it on-screen. If the studio offends sponsors with a less than blissful view of white womanhood, everyone will be out of a job. Kate understands that whiteness would rather know safe repression than joyful realism. Whiteness must be protected from knowing itself too well, from offending itself.
Like all of the film narratives it is sharing this moment with, Sylvie’s Love oddly centers the creativity of jazz, the so called only true American art form, still constantly robbed of its roots in the genius of African spirit and song. From the Nancy Wilson concert that opens the film, to the record store fertile with romance, to the touring and recording sessions in the Brill Building that drive Sylvie and love interest Robert apart, Sylvie’s Love relies on the flux of music as love language to push its narrative along. In all other cases, from Soul, to Ma Rainey, to One Night in Miami, the music is the trip, the tourism that white people purchase and experience at whim. It’s neatly tied up for consumption, on vinyl, in concerts. It’s not a fabric of everyday life.
Sylvie’s Love exalts what is being created and finds inspiration in the mundane. Unlike the films from the era it recalls, it presents it’s brew of fantasia and reality in color. Unlike its contemporaries, it’s shot on 16mm film. The far too defined crispness of a high-definition production fades away. The costumes, the hairstyles, and the sets are fashioned to recreate a world we’re only familiar with through fading photographs and reproduced negatives.
Some criticism has focused on the storyline’s absurdity, in particular Sylvie’s ambitions, but that complaint indicates the level of denial and lack of awareness that the white critical lens has for authentic Black lives.
“Sylvie couldn’t have had that career!”
One of the many Black broadcasters I saw on the evening news as a kid was Belva Davis. From 1957 to 1963, Davis worked her way from print journalism to on-air reporting for Oakland’s KTVU. She also worked as a DJ on local Black radio station KDIA before becoming the first Black woman to work as a full-time reporter on west coast television for KPIX in 1966. In 1970, she moved to the anchor’s seat.
Belva Davis had this career while being a mother, a wife, a divorcee and a wife again. She lived this life in her 30’s and beyond, as the spotlight moved away from Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, her voice filling the airwaves as Davis discussed James Brown and Fontella Bass. She was able to have it all, able to have the mundane and the rewards we grant to productivity under capitalism. I won’t speak for her in regards to how hard or satisfying that was, how heartbreaking and challenging it may have been. It’s none of my business whether there were infidelities and how much respectability politics played into the mix between personal and professional.
It was nonetheless real.
She was a real woman that was on my television in my childhood. In my adulthood, she was a keynote speaker for an event at an arts non-profit I worked for despite our then-executive director’s complaints that she didn’t speak enough about the mission of our organization. The omnipresent white exploitation of Black wisdom, labor and beauty knows no sleep. That’s probably why it’s such a monster.
Respectability also informs the view of the sexual and romantic relationships in Sylvie’s Love. My maternal great grandmother’s second husband is the only father figure my grandmother knew. Stories of infidelities run deep alongside my own family photographs. Beneath the rhinestones and flip wigs, cufflinks and cummberbunds there simmered desires not exactly endorsed in the light of the day or at the church altar. Radical honesty is held within Black families. We try to figure out what is best to put the mind and heart at ease. It is typical for us and atypical contrasted with the passive-aggressive puritanism of white families. My mother knew my Uncle Albert long before she knew my father. Uncle Albert would meet a lovely brown-skinned woman at Kelly Park every Tuesday afternoon. He held a single long-stemmed red rose and stood next to the drivers door of his 1961 Buick LeSabre convertible, performing this flower ritual long enough for it to be executed in a 1971 Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight Coupe.
When my parents got engaged in 1979, Uncle Albert entered the engagement party with my Aunt Robertine, a very fair-skinned woman that was obviously not the woman he met every Tuesday. Agreements, negotiations, realizing love is neither linear, singular.
We fail, we lie.
We all break hearts.
We all move on, or often we don’t.
There’ll be certain flesh you crave that fills you deeply. Metaphorically, and often quite physically, love and lust can feed your soul. Unfortunately, those things alone don’t provide the comfort you need to survive this capitalist hell. This is a reality I knew before I knew what sex was. The capitalist hell we find ourselves buried in deeper and deeper requires commitment to what doesn’t bring us closer to our authentic needs and desires. It shifts our concepts of the beautifully mundane. Instead of coveting eyes that dazzle in the sun or naked flesh in the morning light, we lust after Le Creuset cookware and Roman holidays.
We ignore the need for smiles, dancing, and sex and I’m over the moon excited to witness this reality portrayed onscreen. It’s validating to see day-to-day melodrama in a work of fiction that relies heavily on past realities that I recognize as familiar. The everydayness of someone’s warm body, cheesy one liners floating through the air, smoke and vinegar in a voice, make this life a little less painful.
White America loves to distance itself from its own melodramas. The assimilation and pursuit of control divorces it from the mundane. White America seeks to consume validation from as many eyes, hearts and souls as possible. Too readily, it casts off the fantasias of its own past as absurd camp, misunderstanding that what makes camp campy is its unflinching devotion to artifice as fact.
Sixty-five years later, and on the canvas of television screens in true technicolor, Black people get to live love in all of it’s abstract strokes. And that’s all we can really hope for from a piece of art. To prove we were right all along, to validate ourselves with imagery, with songs, so that we never forget to come back home to the beautifully mundane. That is what allows us to move forward with grace.
Time Capsule or actual human being, who knows. Laurence Jones has been sifting through ephemera of the past seemingly forever, spinning vinyl for you, taking film photography and entertaining you with instagram posts of the decrepit old cars they own. You can find previous writing by them at djlarsupreme.com and medium.com