July 21, 2024


Inspired By Travel

Eugene Ashe Time-Travels to the Harlem of the Past

When the filmmaker Eugene Ashe was growing up, in Harlem, he watched Sidney Lumet shooting “Serpico” in his neighborhood. “It was the scene where Al Pacino got shot in the face, and they took him into the emergency room,” he said the other day, walking past the old Knickerbocker Hospital, now a senior-citizen residence. He pointed to the rooftop where he had perched, as the movie people created a fake downpour: “I remember being seven years old and sitting there and watching them make it rain.” Across Convent Avenue was his elementary school, where Spike Lee shot exteriors for “Jungle Fever.”

Harlem and the movies are all tangled up for Ashe, especially now that he has written and directed “Sylvie’s Love,” a romantic drama set in the late fifties and early sixties, which will be released on Amazon this week. Tessa Thompson plays the title character, a young woman who works at her father’s record store, where she meets a handsome jazz saxophonist named Robert (Nnamdi Asomugha). Ashe, who is soft-spoken, with stubble and catlike eyes, said that he wanted to emulate the big-screen romances of the era—“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “That Touch of Mink”—but with Black characters. “When we talk about the sixties and Black folks, it’s often framed through our adversity,” he said. “What I saw growing up was very different.”

Ashe was born in 1965, and the characters are loosely inspired by his parents, Vinnie and Dolores. Near St. Nicholas Park, where Sidney Poitier once filmed a scene for “Edge of the City,” he pointed out the building where he lived until he was eight, across a courtyard from his grandmother’s place. “They used to run a clothesline, and my grandmother would wash my brother’s and my clothes,” he recalled. The neighborhood, in the pre-crack years, had a swanky middle class. In “Sylvie’s Love,” the colors are saturated, the clothes elegant. (Chanel lent five dresses.) “I wanted to see ‘Ms. Thompson’s gowns by Chanel’ in the credits,” Ashe said.

Because of Thompson’s schedule, he couldn’t shoot on location, so he re-created Harlem on Hollywood back lots, taking visual cues from old family photos. He pulled one up on his phone: his father in front of a blue tail-finned Chevy, with Ashe’s older brother, Tony, in a kid-size suit from Barneys. “This is what Black folks looked like,” Ashe said. His mother’s cousin Juanita Hardy was Poitier’s first wife, and Ashe remembers visiting them in Pleasantville, in Westchester County. “There’d be all kinds of people there, like Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee,” he said. Sylvie, after breaking up with Robert, moves to the suburbs with her husband, who disapproves of her burgeoning television career. Ashe’s mother also worked, at a telephone company. “I don’t think my mother was going to be happy sitting around being a housewife,” he said. His parents split up when he was thirteen: like the movie, a not quite happy love story. “You look at these old pictures and you wonder. It looks so idyllic, right?”

Walking through City College, he squinted at a photo of his mother on the campus, posing with his brother’s baby carriage near a bust of Lincoln. Ashe stopped a passerby and asked, “Do you have any idea where the Lincoln head is?”

“It’s inside the building now,” the woman said, nodding toward Shepard Hall. “His nose is completely polished, because the students rub it for good luck.”

The campus was shut down, so Ashe ambled on to Hamilton Terrace, a brownstone-lined street. “This is what I was going for, when Robert walks Sylvie home,” he said. After studying at Parsons School of Design, Ashe began working at an interior-design firm, but found it “boring.” In the early nineties, his life took an unexpected turn toward R. & B. stardom, when his cousin, tapped by the C+C Music Factory producer David Cole, started a Boyz II Men copycat group, called the Funky Poets, and got Ashe to join. They had a track on the “Free Willy” soundtrack and a spot on “The Arsenio Hall Show” (“which thrilled my dad”), but Ashe didn’t like the attention. “When you are the soap that you’re selling, it’s a lot to deal with,” he said. The group’s record deal lapsed, but he transitioned to writing music for TV shows such as “Oz.” En route to becoming a filmmaker, he opened two restaurants on the West Side, Réunion Surf Bar and Playa Betty’s, which he’s been struggling to keep afloat during the pandemic.

Rounding back onto Convent, Ashe looked wistful. His brother had died the day before, from cancer, years after he was a first responder at Ground Zero. He got to see “Sylvie’s Love” in his last months. “He’s a big history buff, so he really dug it,” Ashe said. “But he lives on in these photographs and the memory of this time. There were four of us: my mom, my dad, me, and my brother. And I’m the only one left.” ♦

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