Loving (2016) Focus/Drama RT: 123 minutes Rated PG-13 (thematic elements) Director: Jeff Nichols Screenplay: Jeff Nichols Music: David Wingo Cinematography: Adam Stone Release date: November 11, 2016 (Philadelphia, PA) Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Jon Bass, Marton Csokas, Bill Camp, Terri Abney, Christopher Mann, Winter-Lee Holland, Sharon Blackwood, Alano Miller, Will Dalton, David Jensen, Michael Shannon.
The recent Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage was very divisive. It sparked many an ugly argument on social media. I lost a few friends on FaceBook when I expressed my opinion. It makes me wonder what would have happened if FaceBook existed 50 years ago when the Supreme Court handed down another landmark decision that changed the face of America. In 1967, they ruled all laws prohibiting interracial marriage unconstitutional. It’s hard to believe it was ever illegal for a man and a woman in love to tie the knot. Like any unfair law, it was bound to be broken and challenged by some brave couple. The story of Richard and Mildred Loving is told in Loving, the new drama from writer-director Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special).
The year is 1958. Richard (Edgerton, The Gift) and Mildred (Negga, Preacher) are young and in love. She’s just told him that she’s pregnant. The next logical step is to get married. The problem is that he’s white and she’s black. The laws in Virginia at the time didn’t allow such marriages so they travel to Washington D.C. to be joined in holy matrimony. Late one night, the police barge into their home and haul them both to jail. When they finally get in front a judge, their lawyer (Camp, Love & Mercy) cuts a deal that will spare them jail time if they agree to leave the state and not return for a period of 25 years. It’s a lousy deal but they take it.
After a while, Mildred has had it with living in exile in Washington D.C. She misses her family. There’s no safe place for their children to play. She wants to go home even though it means she and Richard could potentially go to jail. They move into a house in the middle of nowhere and try to live their lives but it’s not easy with the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads.
Their chance to make history comes in the form of Bernie Cohen (Kroll, Sausage Party), an ACLU lawyer who agrees to represent them pro bono after Mildred writes a letter to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy pleading their case. He makes good on his promise to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s awards season meaning that for the next few months we’re going to see a lot of big Oscar bait movies come and go. Loving already stands out because it has none of the melodramatic bombast we typically see in such films. Quite the opposite, it shows remarkable restraint in telling the story behind one of the most important cases ever heard before the Supreme Court. There are no big inspirational speeches or self-important monologues. No scenes of supporters and detractors surrounding the courthouse. Very few scenes of lawyers strategizing or the principals talking to the press. The focus isn’t on the development of the case. Instead, Loving trains its focus on the Lovings, two decent people who only wanted the same rights as any other couple in love, to live freely as husband and wife. So what if they’re of different races? Their personal story is told with the quiet dignity it deserves.
Nichols is one of the boldest voices to emerge in the last decade. His unique visions subvert whatever genre in which he happens to be working. So far, he’s redefined the disaster flick (Take Shelter), the coming-of-age drama (Mud) and sci-fi (Midnight Special). While I wouldn’t say Loving is his finest work, it certainly proves he’s just as effective a filmmaker when he chooses to dial it down. Its power lies in Nichols’ careful, reserved approach to the story. It allows us to focus on feeling and emotion rather than facts. It’s maddening, heartbreaking and ultimately inspiring. It is, after all, a drama NOT a documentary.
The acting by the two leads is superb. Edgerton’s Richard Loving is a soft-spoken sort who appears to be carrying the weight of the world on his broad shoulders and not just from laying bricks all day. It’s the non-stop worrying about the well-being of his family. It’s the every minute-of-every day fear that racism will rear its ugly head and tear his family apart. He is physically and emotionally exhausted. Equally good (or arguably better) is Negga who conveys volumes of feelings with a simple glance or look. For her, it’s all in the eyes. When she takes an important phone call near the end, she doesn’t need to say anything to let us know it’s good news. Moreover, a fiery resolve lurks beneath those sad eyes. She’s not going to give up the man she loves just because society doesn’t approve.
What’s also interesting about Loving is how relevant it is to today’s times. Of course, I’m referring to last year’s Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. The parallel is obvious. One case mirrors the other. Attitudes change with the times. It’s hard to believe segregation was still the norm only a half-century ago. A half-century from now, young people won’t believe same-sex marriage wasn’t recognized by the law. It doesn’t take much to affect change, just the determination and perseverance of one or two persons. I can’t say where we’ll be in 50 years but if Loving v. Virginia is any indication, humanity and decency will ultimately prevail. I don’t know if this is what everybody will take away from Loving but it’s a nice thought. It’s also one of the year’s most quietly powerful films.