Jeff Nichols might seem like a strange choice to tackle a movie like “Loving” – a civil rights drama about the landmark 1967 court case that finally struck down Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws – considering the writer/director is probably more closely identified with fantastical tales than true-life historical drama. But even when making movies about the extraordinary (a strange child with special powers, the impending apocalypse) in films like “Take Shelter” and “Midnight Special,” Nichols has always been more interested in exploring his stories’ more ordinary human drama than their genre window dressing.
He tackles Richard and Mildred Loving’s story in much the same way here. While their decade-long legal battle for the right to live where they want and love who they want would make history, this is not dutiful Oscar bait or mere hagiography. Yes, there are a few of the requisite courtroom speeches and moments when the score swells to typical Hollywood standards, but for the most part, “Loving” is far more interested in the quiet, everyday struggles of this couple to build a life together. Richard, played by Joel Edgerton, is white. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is black, and while their marriage itself is lensed with little fanfare, simply a small courthouse ceremony in D.C., the repercussions are swift and brutal once they return home to Virginia. Following a jarring midnight arrest, the couple is ordered to leave the state and not return for 25 years, under threat of serious jail time.
Of course, they do return (otherwise, this wouldn’t be much of a drama), pushing back against this ludicrous, brazen example of institutional racism, eventually taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. But Nichols steadfastly refuses to mythologize the Lovings’ story, instead celebrating them as living, breathing people we can actually relate to, as opposed to just look up to. It’s an interesting reminder of something rarely acknowledged in this type of film, that most people don’t intentionally set out to become a symbol, or a chapter in the history books, and it’s an approach that makes the Lovings feel real in a way that many historical dramas tend to overlook.
Time and time again, Nichols underlines that these are simply two regular people, one black, one white, trying to make a family together in the face of an unjust law. He achieves this by keeping the focus on the minutiae, the paying of court fees, meetings between lawyers, finding small moments in between the more obvious big ones. And when the big day finally comes, we get only snippets of the history-making trial, voiceover of lawyers explaining the ramifications of challenging this law over a montage of the Lovings simply going about their usual day-to-day, working, laughing, eating as a family.
Credit also must be given to the two actors tasked with portraying this pair: Edgerton, who had previously worked with Nichols on “Midnight Special,” is solid as Richard, but it’s a tricky role. He’s a quiet, recalcitrant figure, at times almost frustratingly so. But Negga is simply stunning as Mildred; for those familiar with her from her role in FX’s pulpy, comic book-inspired series “Preacher,” it’s quite the turn. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see the actress get some well-deserved Oscar consideration after her subtle, affecting performance here.
However, for all the film’s strong points, there are moments when Nichols seems to get overwhelmed by the responsibility of making a quote-unquote “Important” movie, and momentarily falls back on convention or formula. Nick Kroll feels miscast as the well-meaning but inexperienced ACLU lawyer assigned to the Lovings’ case, a lazy stab at awkward comic relief, and a key moment that pushes Mildred to move their family back to Virginia, law or no law, is especially hokey. In many ways, Nichols pushes back against the genre’s familiar clichés and yet, at other times, frustratingly reverts back to them.
Pacing can be an issue as well. That landmark case, Loving v. Virginia, is the entire reason we know this couple’s story – not to mention why we’re getting a major Hollywood movie about them – but the battle to get to the Supreme Court took close to a decade, which doesn’t make for a very forceful narrative thrust, and can sap the film of energy. There are moments when everything almost seems to be happening around the Lovings, rather than with them as active participants.
Still, Nichols’ hallmark remains his ability to find the real human emotion in larger-than-life stories, and “Loving” works best when it refocuses on that. Where another director might have reduced Richard and Mildred’s story into a more obvious Hollywood biopic, “Loving” takes great pains to remind us that history is made by real people, and the long, slow process of making it is as much an important part of the story as the end result.
Focus Features opens “Loving” in the USA tomorrow, November 4, in a limited release before a national roll-out.
The film’s trailer follows below:
Rick Mele is a Toronto-based entertainment writer who covers all things film, TV, and pop culture-related, and doesn’t normally refer to himself in the third person.