DIRECTED BY JEFF NICHOLS/2016
Jeff Nichols’ 2012 film Mud was a refreshing and engaging look at the south, its darker tendencies, and wonderful beauty. For his 2016 film, Loving, Nichols shifts his focus to a different part of the south, and a different time period. The film’s cinematography is beautiful to look at. Adam Stone captures the vivid contrast between the wide-open natural look of Virginia’s countryside with its farmland and trees, with the harshly cold urban landscape of Washington, D.C. where the only tree you might find is one planted amidst the concrete sidewalks.
Virginia in the 1950’s was a wonderful and beautiful place unless, of course, you were an interracial couple seeking to get married. This is the story based on the lives of Mildred (Ruth Negga) and Richard (Joel Edgerton) Loving. Richard is a bricklayer who also can tinker with automobiles. His father had worked for a black man, and as a result Richard, who is white, grew up among the black culture and felt at home there. It was in Central Point, Virginia in Caroline County where Richard met and fell in love with Mildred. With a child on the way and oppressive laws on the books forbidding interracial marriage, the Lovings head to Washington, D.C. to be married before returning to live quietly on their side of town. Richard works hard to buy an acre of land where he pledges to build Millie a home.
One day, the police raid the house where they are staying, at Millie’s parent’s home, and bring them in for violating the state law against interracial marriage. It is a humiliating experience, especially when Richard is bailed out, but Millie is not. The court officials won’t let Richard bail her out under threat of being re-arrested. She is forced to wait until the following Monday, and only if one of “her kind” does it.
Loving is strongest when it is demonstrating the racial and economic injustices at the center of the story. It is during these events, and the subsequent judgement against them which forces them to leave the state for 25 years as an alternative to serving a year in prison, where the story engages the audience the most. The injustice they are experiencing should give us a longing to see some sort of victory in the end.
Loving is a film about a landmark Supreme Court case, but sadly it gets bogged down in procedure.
Heading to Washington, D.C., the Lovings set up a new life, yet never stop longing to be back home. They despise the city, and the lack of open spaces for their eventual children to run. This longing drives them back home to give birth to their child, where Richard’s mother is a midwife, in violation of their probation. Their lawyer takes care of it and with this recent scare, they head back to D.C. for good.
Years pass and the Civil Rights movement is in full swing. When Martin Luther King’s march on Washington occurs, Millie remarks while watching it on television that it might as well be a world away, despite it being only blocks from their house. A friend encourages her to “get some civil rights” by writing attorney general Robert Kennedy. She writes the letter and documents the experience of she and her husband’s ordeal in Virginia. This leads to Kennedy contacting the ACLU, who get in touch with the Lovings.
The entire ordeal of their marriage to eventual Supreme Court case lasts for 10 years. Along the way we see them struggle with the enormous weight of living in fear of being re-arrested after they move back into Virginia, the mounting court losses as they navigate the legal system, and Richard’s increasing uneasiness of being in the camera’s eye with reporters wanting to film them and discuss their story. One camera that is allowed into their home and their lives is that of Life Magazine photographer Grey Villet, played here in a wonderful cameo by Michael Shannon. Villet’s iconic photograph of the Lovings sitting on the couch laughing as they watched the Andy Griffith Show became an iconic photograph that helped rally the nation around them, or for those in Virginia who still wouldn’t accept them, it made them a target.
The film, while covering one of the landmark cases of the Supreme Court as it relates to marriage equality, is a slow, plodding exercise. The cast is wonderful, the cinematography is beautiful, and the story is engaging, but the pacing and the melancholy tone that rests over the entire film outweighs the strengths of this film. Despite exuding a lot of love and chemistry early in the film, one is left wondering whether Millie and Richard truly loved one another for most of the rest of the film. This wasn’t a case of the strain that they were under causing them to lose heart, but simply one continuous slog of melancholy that permeated every scene.
Jeff Nichols would have better served this film had he provided more moments of levity in the midst of the struggle that reminded the audience what this couple was truly fighting for: each other. Even the announcement of the Supreme Court’s decision is met with mostly very little emotion, much less celebration. Even the closing title cards sharing what happened in the aftermath of the case starts off with tragedy. Nichols seems bent on not letting the audience celebrate a victory that has meant so much to so many people in the decades following this decision.
Loving is a film about a landmark Supreme Court case, but sadly it gets bogged down in procedure. Not the interesting kind of procedure where we see them navigate a legal system stacked against them, as they search for ways to find victory and be together, but simply the plodding of depression where our main protagonists don’t even seem like they are motivated to pursue the path that they are on. We are left to surmise that the ACLU offered to take up their case, and they simply “went along for the ride”. Jeff Nichols has crafted a beautiful looking film. It’s just too bad that I have to ultimately rule against it.