Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Terri Abney, Sharon Blackwood, Alano Miller, Christopher Mann, Winter-Lee Holland, Marton Csokas, Jon Bass, Bill Camp, David Jensen, Michael Shannon,
MPAA Rating: (for thematic elements)
Running Time: 2:03
Release Date: 11/4/16 (limited); 11/11/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 11, 2016
There is no denying the legal, social, and historical importance of the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which deemed laws barring interracial marriage un-Constitutional across the United States. Writer/director Jeff Nichols' film on the subject takes a surprisingly subdued approach. It's not really about the law, the case, or the social mentality that would impose prejudicial restrictions on the love between two people, simply based on the respective colors of their skin. Loving is about a couple confronting blatant injustice in the only ways they know how: by being decent people, hard-working parents, and devoted spouses.
It's a slice of domestic life in which history simply happens upon the lives of Richard (Joel Edgerton), a white man, and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), a black woman, through no fault or real desire of their own. Their wants are simple: to be married, to raise a family, and to do both of those things in the place they have called home—and with the people they have called family and friends—for their entire lives. If they can only do the first two in another place, because the institutions of the place they call home don't want them, so be it. They will make do, because that is what decent, hard-working, and devoted people do.
The film's ultimate effect comes from the simplicity of the couple's goals and the way Nichols focuses on the ways they try to achieve those goals, despite the obstacles in their way. The Lovings' courage and heroism is not in standing against what is wrong. It is in being examples of what is right and good through their everyday lives. That's what Nichols shows us—the power and strength of living decently.
The film opens with a close-up of Mildred's face, staring at nothing in particular with a worried look on her face and struggling to say what's on her mind. Finally, after what seems like a much longer time than it probably is, she speaks: "I'm pregnant."
The second shot is of Richard's reaction. There's another beat of silence as his face remains unresponsive. He's quicker to react than she is to tell him the news, and that face flashes a brief grin of recognition before it breaks into a full-toothed smile of understanding and joy.
Richard later proposes, and she accepts. It is 1958, and anti-miscegenation is the law of the state of Virginia. They have to travel from the small, integrated town of Central Point to Washington, D.C. to marry. Nichols frames the small ceremony in such a way that we can just spot a clerk in the backdrop. The look of happiness and admiration on the white woman's face shines like a momentary beacon of hope.
They're arrested in the night—the county Sheriff's department's kicking in of their bedroom door breaking the silence and stillness of her family's home and the surrounding area, which Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone establish in the shots leading up to the raid. Richard is released on bail, but Mildred has to spend the weekend there, since the Sheriff (Marton Csokas) refuses to let Richard offer any aid to his wife. It's better for everyone, the official says, if "one of her people" takes care of the bail.
One of the wisest choices Nichols makes here is in the way he presents the racism of characters such as the Sheriff. There are few blatantly overt signs—only once does someone use a racial epithet. Their prejudice is undeniably there in attitude—the way a group of sore losers during a race near the start of the film stare at Richard and Mildred kissing—and suggestion—"her people," for example—and justification—the judge (David Jensen) using Christian theology to argue that people of different races were meant to be separated by divine authority. These are people incapable of comprehending the wrongness of their actions and beliefs, because they believe they are right.
Their attorney (Bill Camp) recommends that they plead guilty to the charges to avoid prison time. The Lovings do, and their prison sentence is suspended on the stipulation that they must leave the state. Only one of them may be in the state of Virginia at a time.
The story relies on the establishment of a new routine, as Richard travels back and forth between D.C., where their new home is located, and his hometown every day for work. As their family grows, Mildred grows weary of life in the city. She wants her three children to have the grass and trees of her old home.
The challenge to the judge's ruling comes almost by chance, as a neighbor suggests Mildred write a letter to Robert Kennedy, who passes the couple's story to the American Civil Liberties Union, which appoints a wet-behind-the-ears Virginia attorney named Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll, looking decidedly uncomfortable in an indecisive performance that can't decide if it's sincere or comic relief) to handle the case.
There's a level of humility to the Lovings that belies the significance of the changes they brought. After Mildred receives the first call from Cohen informing her that he's willing to help for no charge, she is not emboldened or suddenly defiant. She simply hangs up the phone and just about collapses in a chair. For his part, Richard is a man of few words, and he's uncomfortable in the sudden national spotlight in which he finds himself.
Negga and Edgerton aren't playing heroes. They create a genuine sense of normal people, like any of us, who just happen to have the weight of history on their shoulders. Loving makes a hopeful and convincing argument, especially needed now, that anyone can bring about social progress.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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