Loving (2016) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements
Running Time: 123 min.
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Martin Csokas, Michael Shannon, Terri Abney, Alano Miller, Jon Bass, Bill Camp
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Review published November 20, 2016
Moving with a subtle yet powerful energy, Jeff Nichols' Loving emerges as one of the best dramas to come out in 2016. It's based on a true story of a forbidden marriage that ended up becoming an important case decision, Loving v. Virginia, for the Supreme Court of the United States.
Set starting in 1958, Joel Edgerton (Midnight Special, Jane Got a Gun) and Ruth Negga (Warcraft, World War Z) star as taciturn Richard and soft-spoken Mildred, an interracial couple (white man/black woman) who, upon learning the news that she is pregnant, elope from their home in rural Virginia at a time of segregation to Washington D.C., until authorities in their native state, where such unions are banned by law (a jailable offense, in fact). Unfortunately, the authorities catch wind and the couple are taken away to jail. Facing more prolonged prison time, their well-respected lawyers plea bargains a deal that avoids jail time on the condition that the Lovings leave the state immediately and never return together for the next 25 years or be incarcerated. They try to make it in more tolerant urban existance, but they miss their country home, and want to raise a family there, but to do so will put everything at risk, unless someone takes up the fight for their civil liberties in the American court system, which is sparked by a letter Mildred sends to Robert Kennedy during the height of the civil rights movement.
It's a sensitive film about a topic that could have been blown up by bombast in the wrong hands, so a good deal of credit goes to its writer-director by always keeping the movie feeling authentic, focused and very plausible throughout, putting the characters on the forefront more so than the weight of their legal dilemmas. Another director might have ratcheted up the acts of racism on the part of the authorities, or have made Richard and Mildred Loving martyr-like figures, but Loving always comes across as grounded, and the Lovings as real, complex people conflicted about wanting to live their lives as a married couple who don't want to be noticed at all for their union. Also missing are the powerhouse "Oscar moments" or crying or anguish on the part of the actors, which is important in watching the film as capturing the spirit of the times much more so than in trying to push major political and sociological themes on its audience through grandstanding and manufactured conflict.
Jeff Nichols (Mud, Take Shelter) is nothing if not a noble filmmaker, which may disappoint some people going into this film expecting a glossy, tension-filled Hollywood treatment of these real-life events. The major court case is mostly kept off of the screen in favor of showing the Lovings in their home life, and the results of the verdict come through on a telephone conversation that we don't even hear both sides of. As such, there isn't the kind of Oscar-bait showpieces of people grandstanding to make (now) populist political arguments to rouse audiences to stand up and applaud. Instead, the low-key approach is meant to have us quietly contemplate how far society has come in between the times of segregation and now, and to surmise how much better it is to foster unity and love among one another rather than revert back to a path of racial, ethnic, and gender divides.
But all of this would not come to fruition if not for the solid work turned in by the lead actors, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, who deliver understated but thoroughly believable performances as the humble couple whose only real significance outside of the landmark court case that would be to come is that they wanted to be married to each other while also living out in their country home in Virginia, not harming anyone. Though they are both actors of note, they inhabit their fine-tuned personas so completely (including great accents from an Australian and Irish/Ethiopian actor, respectively, that we no longer see them as the complex Joel and Ruth, always commonly simple but dignified Richard and Mildred -- a true test of performances and characterizations well done.
Probably a sizable percentage of the audience going into Loving will not know that its title is referring to the names of the main characters caught in the drama of the legalities of their marriage. I'm sure that Nichols' choice is intentional, given that this is a victimless crime pushed forward by prejudicial people in an era that, one would hope, will never exist again in this country, where two people in love want to make that commitment of love by getting legally married. It's the act of "loving" is the main purpose of the union, and the act of "hating" and separation is the real crime, pulling families apart because of outdated, racist beliefs that continue to bubble up in a residual fashion in many parts of this country to this day. Loving is a realistic reminder of America's troubled racial divide, putting forward the Lovings, not as heroes, but as victims of seeing each other without the layers of prejudice and hate that others have been taught since the era of African enslavement.
The film's end credits features the phrase, "Virginia is for Film Lovers", denoting not only the appreciation on the part of the filmmakers for the state's allowance to locales and benefits for those studios seeking to film there, but also makes a nod to the irony that "Virginia is for Lovers" has been their advertising motto for many years, despite the history shown within this film.
©2016 Vince Leo