If you know me, you know I love historical dramas. Film has always been a medium used to convey a moment in our history – whether it be sprinkled with glamour or riddled with ugliness. Hollywood has a knack for churning out historical films around Oscar season and more often than not they pertain to race/civil rights issues in our nation’s history. Some films get the point across poignantly, such as Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), some take a more fun turn to ease the tension, like Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), and then there are some that are just plain offensive (See David’s review of Mel Gibson’s newest attempt, Hacksaw Ridge (2016)). When I first saw the trailer for Loving (2016), I will admit I wasn’t entirely convinced. It looked like Oscar bait about the “generosity” of white people in the same vein as The Blind Side (2009). It wasn’t until my aunt texted me out of the blue asking me to take her to see it because she said it had to do with an important time in history that I put my carcass in gear and traveled to the Greater Boston Area for a matinee ticket.
Loving is indeed based on true events and what troubled me the most, given the past week and the path our country decided to go down for the next four years, is that the criminalization of a family for an interracial marriage resulting in “bastard children” happened less than 60 years ago. It’s hard to fathom sometimes that I have too many family members alive today who were alive back then to witness this status quo for POC. Richard and Mildred Loving were happily married in Virginia in 1958 when their interracial marriage was declared unconstitutional, leading to their removal from the state for 25 years. It sounds like a deportation because that’s more or less what is going on here.
At this point in this review you’re probably thinking, “Reed, this sounds like just about any film about progressivism, what’s the point of seeing it?” I won’t lie to you, there are certainly some trademark progressive period-piece ingredients in Loving; but where director Jeff Nichols shines is in the subtleties of his filmmaking decisions and the fact that Loving is a very quiet movie with a loud statement. Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred, respectively, with such poise that they make you feel as if you took a DeLorean back to 1958 rather than sat down in a theater.
Edgerton is someone I’ve always had my eye on, and it’s refreshing to see him play someone more endearing than a hallow Owen Lars in Attack of the Clones (2002) or a repugnant Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (2013). I have to admit, this is the first film I’ve seen Negga in, but if I were a betting man (which I’m not, after the amount of money I lost in the summer of 2013 playing roulette), I’d place a lot of money on her getting an Oscar nomination in January. Edgerton gives a nuanced performance as a man who chooses love over what his black colleagues in the movie call “the easy way out”. In one of the most effective scenes in Loving, Edgerton’s Richard is in a bar with black relatives from Mildred’s side of the family. He expresses his disdain for the given circumstances and Mildred’s family tells him he can wash all of this away if he wants to. He could leave Mildred and live a happy and peaceful life based solely on the fact that he is white – therefore he’s “fine”. It’s effective because being white and having this reassurance of security is something we see now, more than ever, with the world at the access of our fingertips.
Loving doesn’t try to be this dramatic epic of pain and sorrow that we so often see in historical dramas. Hans Zimmer didn’t compose some grand score to go along with intense scenes, and actors Michael Shannon and Nick Kroll deliver an acceptance of the movie’s circumstances that gives viewers a glimmer of hope that change is possible. Kroll was actually good in this movie as attorney Bernie Cohen, who argued Loving v. Virginia before the Supreme Court, and I hope he did it because he liked the role as opposed to, “I can push myself forward with a role in a movie about race.” Richard Loving doesn’t want a revolution, he wants to love his wife and support their kids. His masculinity is put to the test when he sees co-workers snicker at his black wife, but he doesn’t lash out or try to land an Oscar nomination with some explosive scene of shouting and a monologue. Instead, he keeps his head down to protect not only himself but his family’s well-being.
Loving could have been a Lifetime special that twists facts to convey a more dramatic tone and hit its audience over the head with the themes. Jeff Nichols, instead, decides to trust not only his actors, but his audience to tell a story about love and how it can truly conquer hate. As our country has just allowed hate to trump love, this movie could not feel more timely. It can be a bit slow at times, but this further supports Nichols’ quiet yet effective take on a family that didn’t want to start a revolution. They merely wanted the right to love each other – a right any walk of life should permit.