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‘Sylvie’s Love,’ ‘Mahalia,’ ‘Uncle Frank’ EPs Discuss Playing With History for Emmy-Nominated TV Movies

Sylvie's Love TV Movie
Courtesy of Nicola Goode/Amazon Studios

In order to address the future, sometimes you need to delve into the past. Most of this year’s Emmy-nominated TV movies do exactly that, exploring themes of love, faith and friendship in order to heal harmful past narratives and home in on the humanity of their characters.

When Eugene Ashe was penning the script for “Sylvie’s Love,” the love story of a saxophonist and a young woman, starring Tessa Thompson and Nnamdi Asomugha, for Amazon Prime Video, he specifically wanted to focus on the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the height of the civil rights movement. His goal was to highlight the humanity of Black leads during that time instead of the trauma so many other films have already tackled.

“We’re not represented that well. I wanted to go back and correct that,” Ashe says. “If I look at my family photo albums, I see depictions of people who are living a very different life and telling a very different story than the films I’ve seen that have been set in that era.”

When it comes to the depiction of historical events or people, as is the case for nominees “Oslo” and “Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia,” there’s no choice but to set the story in the past. However, those projects also choose to focus less on trauma and more on reclaiming the human moments in- between. In HBO’s “Oslo,” starring Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott, screenwriter J.T. Rogers and director Bartlett Sher brought to life the once-secret, back-channel negotiations in the pivotal 1990s Oslo Accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

Lifetime’s Danielle Brooks starrer “Mahalia” is the first scripted film to shed light on the life of historical gospel singer Mahalia Jackson following her death in 1972. The filmmakers chose to highlight her inspirational qualities and contributions, rather than making it a cradle-to-grave story and magnifying some of the singer’s personal tragedies or the sweeping movements of the time.

“We chose to, not to disown any of the things that were sad in her life or that she did wrong,” says executive producer Linda Berman. “But because she was so focused on what she did, and she tried to bring joy to people, she was ultimately an incredibly inspiring Black woman.

“We wanted to show what an inspiration she was, and how hard she worked, and how she made choices that probably kept her from being even more successful and even wealthier,” she continues. “We wanted to tell the story of a woman who really set the standard for other gospel singers and other musicians.”

For Amazon Prime Video’s “Uncle Frank,” the 1973-set coming-of-age story of an 18-year-old girl (Sophia Lillis) and her gay uncle Frank (Paul Bettany), writer and director Alan Ball felt he needed to set the story in the past in order to explore the character of an adult college professor who was in the closet and afraid to let his family see his true self. Yet despite the trauma, the story is rooted in hope and told in part through a deeply loving and healthy relationship between Frank and his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi).

“It’s important to tell stories about people who overcome obstacles that seem like they can’t be overcome,” Ball says. “In any situation in which the person is living an abridged version of themselves, whether because of society, or their upbringing, or their past trauma or whatever, those stories are really important to see that people can move through really traumatic experiences and come out on the other side. These experiences don’t necessarily have to destroy us.”