Jeff Nichols’ drama stars Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in the true story of an interracial couple who set in motion a major court case in 1950s Virginia.
Making a nice two-cushion shot where most filmmakers would slam hard straight for the pocket, writer-director Jeff Nichols takes an appealingly low-key approach to an important American civil rights story in Loving. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga very ably portray an interracial couple who fall afoul of Virginia’s miscegenistic Racial Integrity Act when they marry in 1958, setting in motion a case that will take nearly a decade to wind up in the U.S. Supreme Court. It’s a big subject treated in an unfailingly intimate manner, largely without caricature or grandstanding on either side of the issue, an approach that will generate respect and admiration for this Focus Features release upon its planned November release.
A Southern boy himself, Nichols has displayed insight into regional ways in the past, notably in his previous Cannes Film Festival entry Mud four years ago. His way of underplaying racism, even as he firmly notes its constant presence in daily life and makes it the overriding subject of his film, is refreshing as well as rare in the realm of socially conscious cinema, indicating a respect for his audience’s intelligence and a desire not to hit viewers over the head.
Instead, the storyteller offers up a good deal of his material as a given: First and foremost, that Richard Loving (Edgerton), an almost albino-blond white working man, and Mildred (Negga), a black field worker from rural Caroline County, love each other very much and that, when she gets pregnant, they will certainly marry.
This they safely do in Washington, D.C., but when they return home they’re soon arrested and jailed, with Mildred kept behind bars longer. To avoid five-year prison terms, the couple plead guilty in a deal that gives them suspended sentences but exiles them from Virginia for 25 years, meaning separation from both of their families.
All of this is presented in an unusually matter-of-fact manner for a Hollywood film. The South is not shown as being dominated by fire-breathing Klan members, drooling hillbillies and squinty-eyed cops, but rather by regular folks set in their ways on both sides of the color divide. Even Richard’s salt-of-the-earth mother, a mid-wife who handles the birth of their first baby, privately tells her son he shouldn’t have married Mildred, and while the main local cop (Marton Csokas) may seethe with potential sinister intent, he’s got the law on his side and doesn’t need to overstep it.
Nichols indulges generic pressure for melodramatic suspense in a couple of instances when Richard thinks he’s being followed on isolated country roads and when one of their three eventual kids is hit by a car. But he has clearly made a deliberate decision to sidestep conventional hokum as well as to detail the development of the national civil rights movement via lots of documentary and news clips; there are quick glimpses of the space program and a couple of other TV snippets, but no mention of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., Southern racial unrest or other grand historical movements of the period.
Rather, the film somewhat provocatively shows the Lovings being hand-picked by the American Civil Liberties Union as a perfect case to take to the Supreme Court to strike down Virginia’s antiquated racist law, which dated to 1924. First the very youthful Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and then the somewhat older Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) persuade the couple to cooperate in what they correctly view as a strong opportunity to establish legal racial equality. There are a couple of moments when you can sense the lawyers figuratively licking their chops over this shot at making legal history, although the film will probably serve to put the ACLU more prominently back in the news than it’s been in a while.
What’s most striking from a dramatic point of view is that, through it all, the Lovings shun the spotlight almost entirely. From the beginning, Richard wants nothing to do with the case and distrusts the motives of the ACLU—informed that organization won’t charge for its services, he rejects it on the basis that, “You get what you pay for”—and the couple doesn’t even show up when the lawyers finally make it to the Supreme Court in 1967, in a very brief scene presented in abstract visual fashion.
Where the film comes up short to some degree is in the depth of its depiction of the Lovings’ relationship, which is clearly very strong but lacks nuance and articulation, their family (more kids just keep popping up without being mentioned) and network of friends. Richard remains mostly taciturn and internalized even with Mildred and, notwithstanding that he was a man of few words, a few more would have been helpful to give him more dimension.
All the same, Edgarton impressively pinpoints the man’s rock-solid moral principles and personal virtues; there’s not a moment when he waivers in his love and support for his wife and family, even when others suggest his taking the easy way out. Playing a warmer and more accessible person, Negga keeps drawing you in as she delivers a lovely performance that will put the London-based Irish-Ethiopian stage actress, who had a small role in 12 Years A Slave, decisively on the map.
Working with his regular collaborators, including cinematographer Adam Stone, production designer Chad Keith, costume designer Erin Benach, editor Julie Monroe and composer David Wingo, Nichols has delivered a timely drama that, unlike most films of its type, doesn’t want to clobber you with its importance. It just tells its story in a modest, even discreet way that well suits the nature of its principal characters.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (in competition)
Opens: November 4 (Focus Features)
Production: Raindog Films, Big Beach Productions
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Marton Csokas, Nick Kroll, Terri Abney, Alano Miller, Jon Bass, Michael Shannon, Will Dalton, Christopher Mann, David Jensen, Bill Camp, Michael Abbott Jr.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Producers: Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, Nancy Buirsky, Sarah Green, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf
Executive producers: Brian Kavanaugh, Jack Turner, Jared Goldman
Director of photography: Adam Stone
Production designer: Chad Keith
Costume designer: Erin Benach
Editor: Julie Monroe
Music: David Wingo
Casting: Francine Maisler