The story of Richard and Mildred Loving's fight to have their inter-racial marriage accepted by law.
Review by Eric Hillis (@hilliseric)
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Nick Kroll, Will Dalton, Michael Shannon
Loving's premise may read like a cynical bid for Oscar glory, but minutes into the film it becomes apparent that this is simply a story Nichols believes is worth telling. He commendably avoids the sort of dramatic clichés we expect from tales of injustice.
The US is often referred to as a melting pot, but this is something of a false analogy, given how racially segregated that nation still is. In truth, the US is a bunch of saucepans all bringing their own separate stews to the boil, their contents rarely mixing. That's why, even today, when you see an inter-racial couple at the centre of a Hollywood movie, at least one of the protagonists will be played by a non-American actor; Hollywood still believes, rightly or wrongly, that American cinema-goers aren't ready to see a white American actor paired off with an African-American actress, or vice versa. In Jeff Nichols' inter-racial drama, Loving, the leads are played by actors from Australia and Ireland.
The Aussie is Joel Edgerton, reteaming with Nichols following this year's Midnight Special. He plays Richard Loving, who in 1958 married his African-American girlfriend, Mildred Jeter, played here by Ireland's Ruth Negga. As natives of the state of Virginia, where inter-racial marriage was still illegal at the time, the pair tie the knot in a registry office in Washington DC. Once they return to Virginia, they find themselves on the wrong side of the law, with Mildred forced to spend a weekend in the local jail.
The Lovings are given a choice; they can either leave Virginia for a total of 25 years or spend a year in prison. Accepting their fate, the couple moves to DC, where they make a life for themselves and raise three children, but neither is comfortable in the city. Mildred writes a letter to Robert Kennedy outlining her family's predicament, and the Lovings' case is taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union, who assign a pair of young, inexperienced lawyers to their case.
Loving's premise may read like a cynical bid for Oscar glory, but minutes into the film it becomes apparent that this is simply a story Nichols believes is worth telling. He commendably avoids the sort of dramatic clichés we expect from tales of injustice. The court case itself only occupies the final few minutes of the film, and there are no rousing speeches, no 'Oscar' moments. It's a very honest portrayal of two poor, uneducated people who struggle to articulate verbally their unhappiness at the unjustness afforded them.
Richard and Mildred are quietly defiant, though neither believes they really have a chance of beating the system. They answer questions with yes and no answers where others might break out with angry tirades. When Richard refuses to appear in court, his lawyer asks if he would like to communicate a message to the Supreme Court. "Tell them I love my wife," is his simple reply.
Richard and Mildred may be unable to express their feelings with big words and the flowery language of a statuette-seeking screenwriter, but they communicate their mutual affection explicitly. In moments where many couples may grow resentful of one another, apportioning blame for their situation, the Lovings merely quietly embrace. Edgerton and Negga leave us in no doubt that the Lovings were a case of nominative determinism if ever one existed.
Nichols' movie is far from perfect however. While it's mostly under-stated, there are a couple of cartoonish and over the top elements that take us out of the drama. The lawyer assigned by the UCLA has a touch of The Simpson's Lionel Hutz about him, and actor Nick Kroll plays the role as though he's auditioning for a Coen Bros comedy. An accident involving one of the Lovings' kids is filmed in jarringly operatic style, cross-cutting with a falling cement bag on Richard's construction site like a parody of The Godfather. Nichols fails to communicate the timeline effectively. Were it not for their children, we might assume the Lovings' battle with the state of Virginia took place over the course of weeks rather than a decade.
Loving is arguably Nichols' weakest film to date, but he's such a solid filmmaker that it's still very much worth a watch. It details an important moment in history, and unlike this year's other true-life inter-racial drama, A United Kingdom, it cares first and foremost about its protagonists, refusing to reduce them to a historical footnote.
Loving is in cinemas February 3rd.