The true story of Richard and Mildred Loving is one that is ripe for a film adaptation. On paper, one can easily conjure up a saccharine version of this film beat for beat: a story of a couple in love who have to drive across state lines just to get married, only to return to their home state and be persecuted due to their interracial relationship. Cue the Celine Dion music and sunset tinged vistas as the film comes to an end with everyone pleasingly being manipulated into feeling something.
However, Jeff Nichols Loving is not that film. Jeff Nichols Loving is – to put this bluntly – a pure masterpiece of cinema. Yes, I am well aware that that term can is thrown around to hyperbolic proportions in this day and age, but in recent memory, there has not been a more deserving film of that label. Nichols cast Joel Edgerton as Richard Loving and Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving, and through their sublime performances we’re presented with one of the truest depictions of real love on screen.
As Loving opens, we’re presented with Richard and Mildred simply going about their day to day life – they enjoy spending their time with friends racing cars, Richard goes to work building houses, they spend quality time with their family. And yet, once Richard takes Mildred across state lines to be married, they are breaking an arcane anti-miscegenation law that exists in late 1950’s/early 1960’s Virginia. Presented before a judge, they are given the ultimatum – spend time in jail, or leave Virginia and not return for twenty five years. They decide the latter, putting them on a path that they never asked to be on.
Sometimes those who change the world come from the unlikeliest people – and Richard and Mildred Loving are two such people. They never intended to change the world, they simply want to be able to go on with their lives and love each other, raising a family and working a job to get by. Jeff Nichols films have regularly been subdued, quiet affairs about the human condition – Take Shelter focused on mental illness, Midnight Special touched on what it means to be a parent – and Loving is his assessment of what it means to be loved and to love in return. The ‘cinematic’ version of two people in love is often represented by grand gestures, expensive gifts and speeches in the rain, by loud and explosive fights with broken dishes that are followed up by a make up sex. Loving corrects the cinematic depiction of love by presenting it in its truest form – two people working together to live a life as a family.
Richard works and provides for the family, while Mildred stays at home and tends after their three children. Joel Edgerton’s Richard is a weathered man who doesn’t want to cause a stir, he simply wants to get on with the job and carry on with his life. As he is reminded by other characters, the easiest way for him to end this whole charade is to divorce Mildred. But to divorce the person he loves is take away the symbolic aspect of his love. For Richard, the way he expresses his love is by lying on the couch with his head in Mildred’s lap as they watch TV.
Loving presents the argument for basic human rights and equality in such a matter of fact, day to day manner, that anybody with a heart will have it torn apart by the lack of decency that the government treats its own citizens. Often racism is portrayed in film as being excessively violent, or through actions which most people who say ‘well, that’s certainly not what I would do’. Loving presents institutionalised racism in a way that many would not be aware exists. After all, racism did not end with the end of slavery, or the introduction of equal rights, it simply took on another form. Through reluctance and circumstance, the Loving family helped enact a change that assisted a nation in the eternal battle against that beast that is racism.
What is equally important is to display the legacy of organisations like ACLU who have assisted many with breaking down the indoctrinated prejudices within society. It’s a testament to noted comedian Nick Kroll that he’s able to humanise a group that – on the surface – seems wholly opportunistic with their desire to use the Loving family as a figurehead for a cause. As displayed within the film, the ACLU is a cause under pressure, and possibly one that stretches beyond their reach at times – but at the films conclusion, they display their worth.
Loving is measured. Loving knows the weight and importance of this story – not only for those who suffer at the hands of racism, but also those who suffer any kind of injustice brought down upon them by society simply for the way they look, the beliefs they hold or their sexual orientation. To call this a greatly important work of cinema feels like it is not enough. Yes, these stories are real life, but without films like Loving or Selma or Hidden Figures (a film whose title literally says that the story it tells is hidden in history), there is a chance that these greatly important stories would be lost to time. (That may seem hyperbolic, and maybe I’m boosting the power of cinema up too much, but if history books don’t teach this in school, then who will find out about these stories? Cinema is just another way to reach those who are unaware of our past.)
It would be wrong of me to conclude this review without mentioning the truly great performances from Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga. Edgerton delivers a career defining performance – he is a man simply existing within his life, one that is cruelly dictated in unimaginable ways, and Edgerton displays this with immense humanity. Negga is a revelation here, showcasing someone who through its separated from her family because of the colour of her skin, and the man she loves. She’s never histrionic, she’s simply weathered to the point of exhaustion.
Jeff Nichols is quietly turning into one of the great modern American directors. To think that in 2016 alone he delivered two powerful films (the other being Midnight Special), is a testament to the talent running inside him. Perennial collaborator Michael Shannon is also great in a small role as Life magazine a photographer.
Loving broke me in ways I didn’t think cinema could do so. To read the Loving story on paper, you are moved by what they went through, but for it to be told in such a manner as this is simply astounding. As I alluded to in the opening, this film could very easily have been turned into a saccharine, over produced film (I mean, think about what a lesser writer and director would do with a story about love where the main characters surname is Loving – I cringe to think of the possibilities), so I will be eternally grateful that this story exists the way it does.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon
Writer: Jeff Nichols