Loving (2016) Review
Loving is a 2016 biographical drama about an interracial couple sent to prison in 1958 for getting married and violating state law.
The importance of a film like this is the measure for which it tells its story and conveys its message while never letting one overcome the other. This delicate balance can easily topple the experience by either masking too much the value of what the people in the movie accomplished or opposite, over-aggrandizing what should be already clear. With Loving, a sensitive and emotional true story, there are moments that feel as genuine as any of its kind, and makes this film one of the best movies of the year.
The dream is ubiquitous: Find a person to love, get married, build a home, start a family, and live out your days in happiness. So it is for Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred “Bean” Jeter (Ruth Negga) a young couple in Virginia looking to make the dream come true. He’s a small-time mechanic and back-road racer whose saved enough to buy an acre of land near where Mildred lives and build their dream house. She’s even pregnant. Life looks as good as it could get. But there is one hitch, one that in 1958 Virginia makes this life impossible. Mildred is a black woman, and marrying her breaks the state’s anti-miscegenation laws. Knowing that, they travel to the District of Columbia and under a justice of the peace, marry. Not long after though, in the dead of night, police raid their home and the two are thrown in jail.
A deal is struck with the district attorney where the two must leave the state and not return for 25 years, forcing them to abandon their families, their new home, and their dreams. Exiled to Washington D.C., they watch as the country undergoes turbulent civil rights upheaval and in time, see opportunity to bring suit against the state of Virginia that might bring change to many suffering under unjust laws. It makes its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Directed by Jeff Nichols, whose recent Midnight Special, which also starred Edgerton, and earned high acclaim, Loving is an entirely different film in context but of a similar feel. Nichols is patient and unmotivated by the trappings of modern formulaic filmmaking, crating stories that defy the ABC’s of storytelling. While Loving is not nearly as ambiguous as some of Nichols’ earlier works, it does defy convention and allows this story to blossom not with staged moments of manipulation but through a rich tapestry of character development. There is never a feeling that one scene has larger purpose than another or is more significant, only that these are the moments in these people’s lives and their story, collectively, is one to be shared.
Nichols paints a vivid landscape where Richard and Bean exist, with mostly two central locations, one in the Virginian backcountry and the other in a D.C. suburb. Each feel burdened by the weight of their meaning, the open fields of Virginia a toxic land of archaic laws and the closed-in home of Washington, a fortress where they live out their sentence under the dampened hopes of a time seemingly out of reach. As the years pass, and their children grow, we watch as the world around them shifts, and tiny rays of that hope seep within.
Edgerton is as usual, very good, playing a mild man with a good heart, looking to provide and nurture his family. He’s educated enough but simply wants to be let alone, promising to those who will listen that he and Bean will not harm anyone. Negga though is astonishing, a quiet force as Mildred who gives great expressive vulnerability and strength to the role. She needs not speak often in order to say much and with only a look, she tells us everything. Nichols doesn’t let these moments bang but rather shudder, with simple images of her coiled on a cot in a cell or a watching from across the room, her wide, sorrowful eyes betraying more within her heart than a single word could ever.
Loving builds suspense organically, with both the familial bond of Richard and Mildred and the mounting legal case that is building up around them, led by an outstanding performance from Nick Kroll, who has become a surprisingly strong talent in recent outings. Also, as this is a Nichols film, the invaluable Michael Shannon shows up (here as a LIFE magazine photographer) and inspires.
All the while, as the Loving story proceeds, Nichols cuts sporadically to the construction of that little dream house Richard is building for Bean. Brick by brick, the foundation grows, then the walls, and so on. That is where Nichols does best telling his stories, keeping us invested in the peripherals. Loving is an extraordinary film that sees great change come from two people who only wanted nothing more than to have what his very name implies.
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Ruth Negga, Joel Edgerton, Will Dalton