I walked into “Loving” confident I was about to see a film that would blow me away. The trailer may or may not have made me cry, and I knew that it would add to discussions about the inequalities still faced by people of color, women, and especially the LGBTQ community, in terms of civil rights surrounding the right to love whoever one does.
About thirty minutes in, I was sitting very still in my seat, restraining myself from craning around to see if anyone else was wearing a bewildered expression on their face.
“Loving” is based on the true story of Mildred Jeter, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man, married in D.C. in 1958; their interracial marriage is not legal in Virginia at the time. When the Lovings return to Virginia and live as a married couple, their home is invaded by local police who have been tipped off that they are living as husband and wife. Their sentence of a year in jail is suspended on the provision that they leave Virginia and don’t return for 25 years.
Eventually, after years of moving and raising children in less than ideal circumstances, Mildred is inspired to write a letter to Bobby Kennedy. She is contacted by the ACLU, who want to use the Lovings’ story to launch a case that would change the Constitution and alter the course of American history — fighting the bans on interracial marriage. Spoiler alert: They are successful.
There were parts of “Loving” that I did appreciate. The moments with the photographer from Life magazine are lovely; the delicacy required in capturing the beauty of intimate moments to sway national public opinion is quietly beautiful. The actors’ performances themselves were organic and nuanced, especially Ruth Negga (“Warcraft”) as Mildred and Joel Edgerton (“Midnight Special”) as Richard. Negga imbues her character with weariness alternating with hope that makes your heart feel full. The cinematography was elegant if restrained, the natural, understated color palette allowing every scene to flow into the next.
However, I was put off by a few things — namely, the representation of Mildred’s character. The film starts when the two protagonists are already in a committed relationship; we are supposed to know that they are very much in love. But the film never really establishes the intimacy of the relationship. The two barely talk; they never make each other laugh; I don’t think there is a single instance of Richard talking to his children; there are so many lingering close-ups of Mildred’s concerned face that they begin to feel almost stale. Often, the beauty of a shot seemed to be held in her reserved femininity or her motherhood, rather than in her constant strength through emotional labor.
Of course, as this was based on a true story, it can be argued that if the real Mildred was a reticent woman, then her character shouldn’t have to be changed, or made larger than life. This is true; timid or soft-spoken women can be just as strong as the loudest woman in the room. The stories of regular, everyday people are just as important to tell as the stories of people whose names and faces are in our history textbooks; arguably even more so, as the Western education of history has been studied and taught through only the lens of the Great White Man and What He Did for His Country and thereby ignored the contributions and importance of everyone else for so long.
But there are ways to tell the stories of the everyday woman without making her seem passive. There are ways to portray a timid woman without taking away her voice almost completely. The composition of several of film’s shots were shocking to me. There are too many shots in which Mildred is tiny and cramped up into a corner of the frame. Even when she is allowed to take up more space on screen, there are more shots of her blinking than talking.
The film ends with a quote from Mildred that says, “I miss him. He took care of me.” After that, the screen fades to black and credits roll. Of course, she said this in real life. But when an entire movie portrays a person who should have been more of a focal point of the film from the get-go as so passive, this cherry-picked quote was the wrong one to use.
The one time it is pointed out that Mildred had a lot more at stake, as the Black woman, than Richard does as a white man, it’s a small interaction, never addressed again. There was more focus on a racist cop telling Loving that he was going to get in trouble for sleeping with a Black woman than there was on how the dangers of this relationship were affecting Mildred.
The film hints at the fact that the white lawyers are excited about this case because it’ll be an important win for their careers — but it then goes on to portray them as men who only wanted to do the right thing. And even though the scenes in the courtrooms are much shorter than in other movies with court cases surrounding issues of race — “Amistad,” “Lincoln,” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” being the first few to come to mind, all of which are also framed through the white male hero lens — the lawyers are still positioned as heroic.
The music score picks up when the two lawyers start working on the case, and swells triumphantly when they are in the courtroom. The private side conversation between them about how they know their plan to get the Lovings arrested again puts the family in danger and they’re not completely sure they’ll be able to get them out of it unscathed is not framed as a serious discussion about the potential benefits of doing something risky for the greater good, but rather as a funny aside from one to the other as they smile and wave goodbye at the Lovings’ retreating figures. That scene was not a moment of comic relief from the upcoming tension, as it was probably intended to be, but jarring.
I think there’s often a tendency, in coverage of American period films that revolve around conflicts we like to pride ourselves on having conquered, to praise them more than we would otherwise, because no one wants to have their criticsm interpreted as a sign that they aren’t aligned with the messages of hope and triumph within the movies. There is a tendency to exalt them because if we can say that a movie portrays something like the battle for civil rights accurately and beautifully, then that means we have 360 degrees of perspective around it.
But now is not the time to only bask in the beauty of a period film that makes us feel good about how far we’ve come. Rather, we should be pushing ourselves and each other further than ever before in artwork that has a social message, understanding that though no story like this will ever be perfectly told. We would only be doing ourselves a disservice by not allowing films that deal with important subject matter to be analyzed in every way that other pieces are.