‘Loving’ finds the humanity in a legal drama
Any movie released after Nov. 8th — which is consequently a large chunk of the Oscar contenders — is going to be viewed, more so than ever, through the lens of the modern world, especially a period piece about the fight for civil rights and especially a movie like “Loving.”
Out of context, “Loving” is simply a story of power — both political and racial — being used to impose the ethos of one person or group on the lives of an entire nation of people. It’s about the roots of that ethos being grown in the soil of hate and fear. But more than any of that, it’s about the people who are forced to bend to the will of the dominant ideology.
Loving v. Virginia was the first Supreme Court case with a ruling that implied marriage is a fundamental right. The marriage in question was an interracial marriage between Mildred Loving, a Black woman, and Richard Loving, a white man. Jeff Nichols’s (“Midnight Special”) fictionalization of the case follows Mildred, played brilliantly by Ruth Negga (“Warcraft”), and Richard (Joel Edgerton “Midnight Special”) from their engagement until the Supreme Court ruling. After marrying in Washington D.C. and returning to their home in Carolina County, Virginia, the couple is arrested and forced to leave the state for 25 years.
While living in D.C., Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy, and the couple is contacted by an ACLU lawyer, surprisingly played by comedian Nick Kroll (the Douche from “Parks & Recreation”). While a departure from Kroll’s usual breed of comedy, he’s still funny in “Loving,” leaning on earnestness rather than crudeness for laughs.
What separates “Loving” from other court case period pieces is its disregard for the legal side of things. There’s only one shot of the Lovings in a courtroom, and most of the legal dealings are handled off screen. The scene in the Supreme Court is only two shots: one of each lawyer delivering a small speech about love and rights and slavery laws. What we do get is an inside look at the lives of Mildred and Richard Loving. We take on the role of the Life Magazine photographer, sitting in the corner while they and their children simply live.
The life they live is simple and beautiful. Eventually, they move to a big home in the Virginia countryside. Their three children run in the fields. They eat dinner together and watch TV. Nothing about them is spectacular and that seems to be the point. The Lovings are just a family, living exactly the way you’d expect a family to in 1967.
And it’s a quiet life, quite literally. Few words are spoken between any two characters. Richard plays the familiar, tight-lipped countryman. He’s gruff with everyone but Mildred and his children, and even with them, he speaks mostly monosyllabically. Mildred is more open and idealistic — two attributes that have never been more wonderfully visualized than they are in Negga’s big, bright eyes. But even she is shy and speaks softly and infrequently.
The film’s hush and its turn away from the dramatic, hero-filled courtrooms falls in line with a recent cinematic shift to the everyday. With movies like “Moonlight” and “American Honey” casting away strict plot rules and big climaxes, filmmaking seems to be trending towards structural realism, and “Loving” follows suit.
“Loving” is the sort of story that makes you say, “Gosh! Can you believe there was a time when interracial marriage was illegal?” This sentence will be repeated by our children when they talk about gay marriage and their grandchildren when they talk about some other civil liberty we have not even thought of granting yet. That’s perhaps what makes the Lovings’ story feel at once so distant and so present.