Loving (2016)

The second of two films to be released by filmmaker Jeff Nichols in 2016, Loving is a biographical drama that tells the real life story of Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter Loving, an interracial couple from Virginia who got married when interracial marriage was illegal in the state.  There has been a lot of award buzz surrounding this picture, and rightly so, as it feels like one of the most authentic biographical films I have seen in quite a while.  More importantly, it is a story worth being told and told well.

Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga) are two people in love, with a baby on the way, who decide to get married.  Being that they live in Virginia, and Richard happens to be white and Mildred happens to be black, and anti-miscegenation laws prevented white and black people from marrying, they drive to D.C. to be married because there would be, in Richard’s words, less red tape to go through.  One way or another, word gets back to the police, and the local Sheriff, Sheriff Brooks (Martin Csokas) and a group of police officers, enter their home in the middle of the night and arrest them when they find the two in bed together.  Facing a year in jail or having to leave the state of Virginia, they relocated to Washington D.C. where they try to start and raise their family.  Eventually, their case is heard and picked up by the ACLU in the form of Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a lawyer who thinks their case could go all the way to the Supreme Court, resulting in the landmark Loving v. Virginia court case.

This film is not the type that would fall into the category of “Oscar bait.”  As a matter of fact, it’s about the exact opposite of that.  There are no big speeches, no grand moments, no one clearly gunning for a moment that screams for recognition when award season rolls around.  It’s precisely because it is so completely lacking in those things that it accomplishes so much.  This is a story that would be a simple love story between a husband and wife were it not for the law prohibiting their love.  There is nothing that distinguishes the their love for each other from that of any number of people married couples, except the color of their skin and where and when they happened to be born.

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By all accounts, this was an exceptionally shy and unassuming couple.  They did not seek the spotlight.  They were not looking to make a statement.  This was not even a couple that sought to be involved in a landmark moment, as most people likely do not.  Their story is not as public as, say, Rosa Parks or any other numerous stories that can be recalled from this moment from the civil rights movement.  Their story is laid out with the civil rights movement happening all around them, but in this film it remains on the fringes.  When Martin Luther King Jr. and other are marching in D.C. mere blocks away from their home, Mildred comments, “Might as well be half around the world.”

Nichols and everyone involved treat this story and the people at the heart of it with the proper amount of respect and come at it from a place of sincerity in their storytelling.  The plot is never preachy, it’s also never precious or saccharine in its treatment of the love between Richard and Mildred.  It’s hard to even recall a scene involving the two of them that feels false in any way.  A few bits of the film do not fit or work as well as others, but I think this is heightened and sticks out because everything at the center of the story is so genuine.  Kroll, for instance, is a bit jarring at first, as he is an actor known almost entirely for comedy but is in a much more serious role as their lawyer from the ACLU.  At times he is still going for laughs, and even though he is far more reigned in than he normally is in a comedic performance, it is still noticeable.

In fact, “reigned in” is a term that could be applied to nearly the entire film.  It is incredibly restrained and understated.  Not to the point of being uninteresting or opaque, but just to refrain from being showy.  It is in keeping with who these two people were, shy and unassuming and just wanting to go about their daily lives, that Edgerton’s and Negga’s performances are grounded in.  At several turns of the film, I expected a blow up between them or by one of them at someone else, mainly because of how other films condition us to expect these elements.

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But they do not come, save two subdued moments where Richard is a little slow to understand the gravity and importance of their case when meeting with Cohen and in one moment later on when he comes home from work to find his wife being interviewed and is clearly uncomfortable with it, but only because of the publicity of it all.  Instead, the film succeeds because it focuses on the small moments of family life between the two, and eventually their three children.  When they first drive to D.C. after being kicked out of Virginia and are driving through what will be their new neighborhood, so much is conveyed in the small, simple gesture of Mildred looking out her passenger window as a country girl who has never been to the city, and putting her hand out behind her for his hand for comfort in an uncertain situation for her, and him seeing it and holding her hand.

Nichols is one of my favorite directors right now, maybe even my favorite.  The thing he does so well is that he is able to tell stories that are big from an intimate level.  It’s something that served him well in Midnight Special and in Take Shelter.  The court case of Loving v. Virginia is a landmark decision, a dramatic turning point in American society, culture, and law.  The decision occurred in 1967.  There is a lot going on in the country at that time.  Focusing on the two people at the heart of all of this, though, gives a human context that a school textbook or a movie telling a story on a grander scale could never accomplish.

Loving finds what is profound in the love of Richard and Mildred by focusing on the simple.  The film is about the everyday aspect of their love, and how normal it is.  It is a film that goes out of its way to avoid the big grand gestures and instead chooses to show that they are in fact a family by showing them actually being a family; working on cars, ironing, and sewing all while their kids run around playing.  That’s never more on display and at its most affecting when Cohen asks Richard, who has decided not to go to the hearing before the Supreme Court, if he has anything he would like to be said to the Supreme Court Justices of the United States.  Richard, pausing a moment on his porch, says, “Yeah.  Tell the judge… tell the judge I love my wife.”

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Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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