AFROPUNK INTERVIEW: EUGENE ASHE MADE THE LOVE STORY WE DESERVE
By Awa Gueye
January 29, 2020
We deserve to see ourselves happy and light as much as we deserve to see the darkness we have endured. Sylvie’s Love is an ode to a time that Black people have historically been erased from. Either from simply not appearing in films or being in them only in proximity to whiteness, we have been majorly excluded from a pivotal era of cinema. Director and writer Eugene Ashe’s Sylvie’s Love recognizes this and reminds us it is never too late to reclaim our history.
Created to fill an unacceptable void, it is reminiscent of old Hollywood movies but differs in perspective and representation. Though it sounds ridiculous to say, Sylvie’s Love speaks volumes for its ability to tell a Black love story set in the ’50s and ’60s that actually focuses on the love as opposed to it becoming a secondary plotline to racism. Our problems from all time periods deserve to be as much about relationships to each other, love and friendship, as they do about discrimination. The truth is when we learn about our family histories we also learn the funny stories, romance stories, juicy secrets about our elders’ friends and enemies. Our stories will always be intertwined in our dark history for it is all a part of what makes us, us.
Sylvie’s Love dares to tell a story about our joy but it does not dismiss the crimes we endured in our past. Instead, it shows our strength and the fearless ability to love despite a world that did not want to love us. For Hollywood to often deduce our stories to only the darkness is a crime against our history and legacies. It is our joy and ability to not just persevere but thrive that has gotten us through and continues to. This film gives us what we deserve, to be seen as we were, are and always have been.
The movie is a gift in that it is an encouragement to the previously pushed aside to take up space and rewrite ourselves into the history that we have always been a part of. It is a nice testament to Black joy and the beautiful ability to love and enjoy life despite the deep layered pain we’ve been made to deal with. I spoke to filmmaker Eugene Ashe about this.
Your film screams optimistic resistance to me. You used your microphone to do and create what you’ve wanted to see, not just complain. What role does optimism play in your life and your work?
That’s a great question. I’m optimistic that there are like-minded people who want to see the same things exist that I wanna see exist. My way into my art is always something that doesn’t exist that I want to see exist. I think Love Jones was the last movie that made me kind of feel like there was this Black love story that was populated by people who felt like me. I hadn’t seen one in a long time, there are plenty of romantic comedies but I needed something with a little more substance.
I really loved that era, even Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X found the time to get married and have babies, you know? But the only time we are depicted in that era it is always about the Civil Rights Movement. So I am optimistic that, like I said, there is an audience. Or… it is less about an audience. All I am doing is making something that I want to see. And the optimism comes from hoping that you want to see that too and that there are other people Black or white who want to see those types of representations of people. It’s a universal theme, I don’t need to be Asian to like the movie Crazy Rich Asians and even emphasize with what is happening in that movie or In The Mood for Love.
Do you have a favorite Sundance song?
A favorite Sundance song? That’s funny, you mean like from my movie? [Laughs]. ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’? Yeah, I think I’m gonna go with ‘The Best Is Yet To Come’. That’s hilarious.
Aside from the actual music and music storyline, the film is so musical. It is rhythmic and full of patterns and repetition. I found it to be very smooth like jazz, barely any yelling except for one moment when the times are changing and as we leave the jazz era, things begin to get a bit less smooth. How does your own musical background impact your art?
There is definitely a rhythm to the story. You know? There is a rhythm to the edit. Jazz by nature can be fast and can be kind of ruckus but it also can be lived in for a moment. Like especially those songs like “The Nearness of You” and those Nancy Wilson songs, you really kind of get swept away by the strings and the emotion of it.
I think that there’s a rhythm of the movie that plays like those songs and vice versa. I chose those songs cause they play like that, and the movies from that era play like that too. It may feel slow to people at times but sometimes I want it to be slow. I want you to stop. And watch it and let it wash over you. And some people get very uncomfortable with time. It’s like ‘what’s next, what’s next?’ But that’s just the time we live in. I want you to feel the pace of the time too. So a lot of it’s intentional whether it falls flat on some people… that’s just gonna happen. If you watch an old movie you’re gonna feel the same way, it’s not really fast-paced like an action movie.
Final question. The theme this year at AFROPUNK is ‘Strength in Struggle’. We spoke to Dr. Angela Davis about this and what it means. This part of her quote to us reminds me of Sylvie’s Love: ‘We don’t think of the present as history. ‘Strength in Struggle’ evokes the present and future as history, and calls upon us to imagine something better — something that will attend to the needs of all of us.’ Would you say your film practices ‘Strength in Struggle’?
Yeah, I would. I think that it is hopeful — first of all, another aspect of that, just talking about time being a linear thing. I think we are always fated to relive things that have happened in the past. You know, racially we are not there yet. We’re not there yet with gender equality, and that is more of a theme in this movie than the Civil Rights movement is. If there is any political thing, it’s about that more than anything else. There are things that we can learn from the past and take to the future or try to recreate. I mean in some ways you can get a little lax if you think that everything’s cool, but they were deep in the struggle because the struggle was so real to them. Like you gotta sit in the back of the bus, you know? So now we can sit anywhere on the bus but do we know where the bus is going?
I still want it at its core to be focused on… it’s like with Dr. King when you make him a hero, and I’m talking about a superhero, he’s obviously a hero but when you make him a superhero, and you make him not human, then it actually takes away from how courageous he was because he’s not bulletproof, and that’s the thing that we’re talking about. And so with love, the fact that we were still able to love, and thrive, and have kids, none of us — you and I wouldn’t be here if they weren’t still having sex and falling in love so I wanted to show that. We always get kind of, we don’t see that side of our humanity so it’s almost like we didn’t exist before the ’90s or something. And I want to show that we did exist.