Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols; based on The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski
Cinematographer: Adam Stone
Producer: Jared Ian Goldman, Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, Nancy Buirski, Sarah Green, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf
by Jon Cvack
Mud (2012) had gotten me excited for Jeff Nichols was headed. I thought it was one of the greatest films of 2013, ushering in a new era of Southern Goth, first explored in Shotgun Stories (2007), expanded in Take Shelter (2011), and continued with Midnight Special (2016). Except just as I had big problems with Midnight Special and its desire to abandon its own logic for sake of story, Loving piqued my interest by demonstrating Nichols’ attempt to move into Awards fare.
I had recently read “May It Please the Court…” - a great book on the history of major supreme court cases, which discussed the Loving trial in which an interracial Virginian couple was arrested due to bigoted anti-miscegenation laws. Growing up, I had heard similar arguments from baby boomers about the issues of interracial marriage - in which racism was masked as a “concern” for the bi-racial children who would grow up “confused” about their identity, having an adverse effect on their entire lives; whatever this meant (even as a kid I didn’t understand this logic and Obama’s election didn’t help their case).
I’m proud for having little recollection of anyone from my generation expressing similar reservations, ostensibly indicating that - while far from corrected - racism has improved over the last half century. While some Baby Boomers disagreed with interracial marriage while being against segregation, the Silent and G.I. Generations prior favored segregation while being against second class citizenship, the Silent Generation had some agreeing with second class citizenship while being against slavery, and prior to that some supported slavery while others didn’t.
While there are significant problems remaining, I’m comforted that each generation has gradually improved their regard for the black community. The present phase seems to function as a denial of systemic or institutional racism; something I imagine we will reform, which the next generation will accept and, hopefully, continue to improve.
While “May It Please the Court…” centered on the facts of the case and how it was argued, I was hoping that Loving would explore the public’s response. Unfortunately, Nichols made the odd choice of focusing almost entirely on the couple, excluding the scope of the case and the millions of people it would affect. By allowing us to enter the world of Richard (Joel Egerton) and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga) we were able to see that a couple’s love and the desire for family is a universal emotion; shared by races and cultures the world over. Through providing empathy, we were able to look past the color barriers.
The problem is that I don’t think this was what the world needed. Perhaps in the 1950s a film like this would have been effective, in which portraying the universal nature of love would have allowed others to see that skin color is all that separates whites from blacks. I think of the film No Way Out (1950), where Sydney Poitier as Dr. Luther Brooks had to deal with a pair of bigoted men who believed his race made him an inferior physician, refusing his service, later learning that intelligence is not at all hindered by skin color, though not before it sparks riots in the street.
In Loving we get an exceptionally brief clip of the Civil Rights movement gathering in D.C., where Mildred wishes she could be, limited by her three children and that’s it. She does write a letter of Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who recruits the help of two ambitious, self-seeking lawyers Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) - clearly thrilled for the opportunity to argue in front the Supreme Court (and leaving you to wonder if it was Loving’s name that provided at least a minor political advantage toward offering their support). However, most of their scenes revolve around explaining the process of appeals and how they get to the SCOTUS, while offering some comic relief, and doing their best to convince the stolid Richard to continue fighting the cause.
It wasn’t a mistake to focus almost entirely on Richard and Mildred’s relationship and history; it was just wasn’t what the story deserved. From a historical standpoint, this story had far reaching implications - for America and the entire world. Just as Brokeback Mountain and Moonlight (2016) have helped break down the binary attitude toward masculinity, allowing us to meet fascinating and accessible characters and extend ourselves into them, providing us empathy and understanding, Loving has done the same - the problem is that it’s just not what’s needed. The greatest films connect to the zeitgeist, no matter the story or topic. The country didn’t need to see and understand a loving couple, as it was SUPAC’s understanding of their relationship that led to Virginia vs. Loving’s success; the country had already accepted this. What the country needs is to see that justice can prevail, no matter how difficult or impossible it may seem. The fact that we are only in the courtroom, hearing arguments for seconds of this two hour and change film is absurd. I wanted to see the hate and bigotry; I wanted to see the riots in the streets, demanding justice; I wanted to see other interracial couples fearing for their families and hoping it could change.
History has a funny of way of making things seem inevitable, when in fact, there is nothing inevitable about it. Currently, economic inequality is boiling beneath the service, affecting all races and cultures, and right now it honestly seems impossible to imagine it ever getting better. But history has proven that it will. To think that bi-racial marriage was ever illegal, in which a state’s justice system would imprison individuals entering to a sacred bond that any rational person could emphasize with, is difficult for me to comprehend. Yet at the time, and over ten years as this film portrays, it seemed unimaginable that anything could ever change. It’s that struggle between hope and hopelessness that I was wishing to see. Instead, most of what I believed mattered most was left out. I understand that Richard and Mildred were portrayed as and might have failed to understand the scope of what their case meant, but I think that was unfair to all those who saw them as champions of an important cause. In a time when many are looking for more justice in the world, it was the broader implications that the story needed to explore. If even to intercut images or scenes of the civil rights movement, showing what was going on and what it all meant, it could have at least relieved some of the issues. Instead, all we saw were Richard and Mildred’s relationship, brought to life by two phenomenal performances, but never getting to the grand implications of what it all meant.
BELOW: As close as it gets to the anger from Black Americans at the time. I get that they wanted to keep the characters removed from the larger protests to maintain the intimate story; I just don't get why
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