It appears that I am solely destined to watch films based on 1960’s American history this year; but if they continue to be of the quality that Jackie and Loving were, then I am more than fine with that scenario. Of course, given that this film is about an important moment in the history of American constitutional law; it’s quite difficult to go into detail about it without “spoiling” the ending. The thing is, the ending isn’t really the point of this film… so I’m going to go ahead and do it in the next paragraph. You have been warned.
Loving is the story of Richard and Mildred Loving (played by an almost unrecognisible Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga respectively), an interracial couple living in Caroline County, Virginia, who attempt to get around Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws by traveling to Washington D.C. to get married when Mildred reveals that she is pregnant with Richard’s child. These Virginian laws essentially dictated that mixed race couples were illegal, that it is illegal for people of mixed race to date, marry, procreate or co-habitate. Needless to say, their plans do not go according to plan; the Lovings are arrested and imprisoned soon after returning from Washington, thus beginning a decade’s worth of legal battles which would conclude with the case of Loving vs. Virginia, decided in the Supreme Court in favour of the Lovings; a moment which would fundamentally change anti-miscegenation laws forever and fundamentally alter the constitution of the United States of America. The case itself is absolutely fascinating; fought on behalf of the Lovings by Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop (played by Nick Kroll and Jon Bass respectively), funded by the American Civil Liberties Union (or ACLU). This film, however, is not called Lovings vs. Virgina. It is merely called Loving, and it is the Lovings who are the subject of the piece – not the court case.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Midnight Special, Take Shelter), Loving is very much a character piece; a film which shows takes us inside the hearts and minds of two incredibly important figures in American history; two figures who didn’t want any of the fame or attention that this court case brought upon them, but who just wanted the right to live with each other and love each other in the county and state which they loved. Both Negga and Edgerton put in wonderful performances with this goal in mind; both embodying the bodies and souls of the two Virginia natives in their drive to bring their story to the screen.
Richard Loving was a bricklayer by trade; and in his spare time would modify and fix cars and build things for his family and friends; he was a quiet man of simple pleasures, and Edgerton does a tremendous job of showing us the tender soul of this gentle giant. He has his moments of doubt and irritation; Mildred’s courting of the press gets under his skin as he works to protect his family from the wolves at the door, and we see a number of moments of panic caused by suspicious vehicles and overzealous friends. His deep care and love for his family always shines through in the end, the mortar holding their family together; both financially and, at times, morally.
Mildred is more fiery, demonstrating a quiet intelligence that pushes the pair further in their fight for justice. She is the one who suffers most from the aftermath of their original conviction; ripped from their idealistic country home and forced to move to the cityscape of Washington D.C. Her dissatisfaction with the city as a locale to raise their children is a driving force behind her choice to contact General Attorney Robert Kennedy in the first place, and it is that action which sets the second part of their story in action. Negga takes this role by the horns and makes the most of it, demonstrating both Loving’s intelligence and longing for justice, alongside her caring and understanding for her publicity-shy husband and their family. She acts a one would expect from a modern black woman during the years of Martin Luther King’s prominence, making intelligent, informed decisions as for the route to take with their on-going struggles, but remains aware of her husbands’ discomfort and takes measured steps to avoid going over the line with him, and keeping him on side.
The supporting casts’ roles are all much smaller in comparison to the leads, but they are used well. The aforementioned Nick Kroll and Jon Bass bring an element of levity to the piece as the ALCU-nominated lawyers for the case, with Cohen’s alternate motive of fame as a constitution-affecting lawyer being subtly hinted at beneath the good intentions of taking the case. Alano Miller and Christopher Mann both have great turns as Mildred’s brother Raymond and father Theoliver; and Terri Abney puts in a standout performance as her sister Garnet. Michael Shannon, who has starred in a number of Nichols’ other films, makes a brief and wonderful appearance as Life reporter and photographer Grey Villet, who visits the Lovings ahead of their legal battles commencing. The recreation of an iconic photograph used in their Life article, the original of which is shown at the conclusion of the film, goes further to highlight the incredible casting decisions taken with Edgerton and Negga, and the scene in which they show it being taken is possibly the warmest moment of the film.
As with Nichols’ previous works, the pace of Loving is best described as steady, perhaps could be described as slow, which may be off-putting for some. It also lacks a certain amount of tension; even for those who don’t know what the outcome of their legal struggles are going to be. But it is their own disassociation from the courtroom which I feel informed Nichols’ choice to remove the tension of courtroom drama from the film – the Lovings weren’t even present in the Supreme Court during the trail. The result is a carefully constructed insight into the lives of two human beings who just want to be in love, and love is the key theme of the piece, but not in an overly-sugary way. Nicholas Sparks is no-where to be seen; there are no set-pieces with crying in the rain next to a lake, but just a down-to-earth portrayal of real people who share real love. It feels particularly important in the current climate as well, given its message of acceptance of love between all people and the important affect it had on the constitution of a still-divided nation during a time of unrest.
Overall, this is a wonderful, gentle film and is well-worth checking out while it’s still in cinemas, particularly for the performances of Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton. Having seen it; I’m surprised that Negga received and Oscar nomination and Edgerton didn’t.