Loving (United States/United Kingdom, 2016)

November 12, 2016
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Loving Poster

As straightforward “based on a true story” movies go, Loving is a strong account of the key factual events that led to the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision overturning anti-miscegenation laws. Effectively acted and occasionally moving, the film both benefits from and is undermined by writer/director Jeff Nichols’ no-frills approach to the circumstances leading up to the court case. Although it could be argued that Loving does little more than bring life to a Wikipedia entry, it does so with tact and craftsmanship, teaching a history lesson while offering a cautionary message for current and future generations.

Most movies set in the 1960s focus on the cultural and sexual revolution - hippies, drugs, rock & roll, and the anti-Vietnam War movement. For Loving, those things are far removed and of little consequence. Nearly 100 years after the abolition of slavery, the South remains gripped by deep-rooted bigotries that disallow people of color to do many things, including intermarry with whites. Legal prohibitions have never been effective at stopping people from falling in love and that’s no different in the case of Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga). When we first meet them, they have been together for some time - long enough to have conceived a child. Now, with this unborn baby on the way, they have to decide how to move forward.

Virginia does not allow interracial marriage so a wedding at home is impossible. To legitimatize their union, they travel to Washington D.C. where a justice of the peace is more than happy to name them man and wife. They return to their small town and resume their lives, staying with Mildred’s family while Richard, a builder, prepares to craft the house that will become their home. But the secrecy surrounding their marriage doesn’t last. Someone says something and the local sheriff (Marton Csokas) show up in the middle of the night to arrest the couple. Their lawyer arranges a plea bargain and the judge agrees to suspend their sentence if they leave Virginia immediately and stay away for the next 25 years (they can return separately but can’t both be in the Commonwealth at the same time). The sentence, which is difficult for Richard, proves intolerable for Mildred and it’s only a matter of time before they violate the terms of their probation and place their freedom in jeopardy.

Loving chooses to focus on the domestic aspects of the Lovings’ marriage. The legal part of the story, which might make for a fascinating movie in its own right, is of secondary concern. Writer/director Jeff Nichols introduces the two ACLU lawyers, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass), but they never evolve into more than secondary characters and their arguments in front of the Supreme Court (with the Lovings not in attendance) are only briefly excerpted.

The screenplay’s shortcomings are largely the result of time pressures. Even with a two hour running time, Loving needs to cover a decade’s worth of events and this doesn’t allow for it to “breathe” the way it should to cross the threshold into greatness. The narrative is comprised of key vignettes that take place over the course of the 1957-1967 period. The characters are not well fleshed-out, although a strong performance by Joel Edgerton and an even better one by Ruth Negga help to overcome that hurdle. Where Loving does a good job is in illustrating the prejudices that surround both the inter-racial marriage and the decision to fight the statue that prohibits it. (Some of the secondary characters are represented as stock, stereotypical “’60s-era Southern racists” but I’m perfectly willing to accept that this may be a valid choice considering the setting.)

As Richard, Edgerton inhabits the character of a taciturn, reclusive man whose forte isn’t verbal communication. Richard isn’t warm or easy to like but there’s no doubt that his devotion to Mildred is genuine. Edgerton makes him marginally sympathetic without resorting to the usual tropes. Richard isn’t galvanized by circumstances to become a “new man.” He doesn’t suddenly exhibit hitherto hidden charisma nor does he become a great orator. He’s pretty much the same man at the end as in the beginning. On the other hand, Mildred blossoms, transforming from a shy girl to a strong, determined woman who embraces the media attention because of what it might mean for the case. Negga’s performance places Mildred at the film’s emotional center. Her acting radiates authenticity and her expressive face fills in gaps left by the dialogue. She’s the best thing about this good film.

Nichols’ understated approach deflects melodramatic pitfalls but it keeps us at arm’s length. Historical authenticity is obviously one of Nichols’ primary goals and there’s no question he achieves that. The movie reflects the period, right down to the vintage Corelle dishes that Mildred uses. Loving’s emotional impact is more erratic, however. There are times when Nichols has difficulty balancing the personal story of a family’s struggles with the bigger picture of history-changing events and this results in pacing issues. Loving is an important and interesting motion picture but it’s not always as involving as it might have been.

Loving (United States/United Kingdom, 2016)

Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Christopher Mann, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Jon Bass, Michael Shannon, Bill Camp
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Cinematography: Adam Stone
Music: David Wingo
U.S. Distributor: Focus Features
Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 2016-11-11
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Adult Themes, Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1