The film, Loving, could not have arrived in movie theaters at a better time in U.S. history. Nor could the subject, the word itself, and the irony of it all be more apropos, especially three weeks after this nation’s contentious elections.
I watched the film in a commercial theater, which provided an interesting backdrop. Usually sitting through 20 minutes of previews drives me nuts. But these trailers were an interesting mix of films; and a definite sign of the times. Three of the five were movies starring, written by, and/or directed by African Americans. That in and of itself seemed like a triumph after last year’s whitewashed Academy Awards. But as half of the country reels at the thought that they may be disenfranchised once again, I’m not so sure.
But back to the film itself. Loving is a beautifully crafted love story that’s set in the South in the late 50’s. It was a time when interracial marriage was still banned in some states, including Virginia, where the action takes place. The film is based on a true story and a simple premise – boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl gets pregnant, and boy marries her. But like all good love stories, the protagonists face many obstacles. The biggest one here is that Richard Loving is white and Mildred Jeter is “colored.” So they go to Washington, D.C. to marry. When they return to Virginia, they are soon arrested, given a year’s suspended sentence, and told they cannot return to Virginia for 25 years, unless they want to live apart. It’s an act that propels the story forward and eventually takes it all the way to the Supreme Court and the overturning of the miscegenation laws in 1967.
The history is both dark and powerful. But the film doesn’t play it for histrionics. Instead, in director Jeff Nichol’s steady hand, the story unfolds in a “just the facts” manner. There is no ranting, or raving, or sudden outbursts. There are just quiet moments, subtle looks, and equally seamless camera movements. Even the case itself, which eventually made it to the Supreme Court, is not overdramatized. In real life, the Lovings were reluctant heroes.
Their movie counterparts, Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred, are wonderfully cast. We suffer with them as they experience almost a decade of silent torture and humiliation. Mildred stoically maintains her composure throughout, her eyes the only outward sign of her hurt, courage, and hope. In Edgerton’s Richard, we see an uneducated man unable to articulate his emotions, but whose body language says it all – he visibly begins to bend under the weight of the responsibility and his job as a laborer. The sheriff, a wonderfully arrogant Marton Csokas, uses “God’s laws” to justify his disdain of, and the laws against, interracial marriage. And Michael Shannon, in a small role as the Life photographer who captures some beautiful moments with the couple, is spot on. In fact, the only role that didn’t ring true was that of Nick Kroll’s Bernard S. Cohen, one of the attorneys who went to the Supreme Court to fight for the Lovings … and make history. He seemed to smirk through the role, lending the character an almost cartoonish appearance and attitude.
This is not the first time that the subject has been covered. In 1996, a TV movie called, Mr. and Mrs. Loving, first explored the story. And in 2012, the HBO documentary, The Loving Story, dug deeper into the political and social ramifications using a rich collection of 16-millimeter film, old news clips and still photographs. Today, the emotions, the legal wrangling, and the story itself still resonate. As Ruth Negga so eloquently noted, “I think a film like Loving generates compassion and empathy. I really do think we need a lot of that in the world.”
When the Loving case finally went to the Supreme Court in 1967, Richard Loving refused to attend, despite the pleas of his attorney, Bernard Cohen. So Cohen asked him, “Is there anything you want them to know?” Richard replied simply, “Tell the judge, I love my wife.” It’s still a chilling line.