Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court decision which unanimously struck down as unconstitutional state laws penalizing interracial marriages, was more than an epochal moment in American history. As Jeff Nichols’ film, Loving, effectively conveys, the case surrounds the story of Richard (Joel Edgerton), a white man, and Mildred Loving (Ruth Negga), a black woman, and their ten-year wait to simply live a peaceful married life with their family in rural Virginia. Loving implores its audience to relate to the Lovings on this kind of human level. In so doing, the film — albeit with some imperfections along the way — is particularly resonant at a time when many individuals in America may feel as if their own inherent rights — and their hard fought-for rights — are on shaky ground under a forthcoming Trump administration. They may be right about that.
The first scene, and perhaps the best of the film, is of the couple sitting together on a porch rendered idyllic by amber light, a clear summer evening, and a warm familiarity between the two high school sweethearts. We get an idea of how Richard and Mildred speak to one another; a few words at a time preceded by thoughtful, sensitive pauses. Other times, they sit in silence and fill the air with their own unspoken language. This is a lovely moment, but it’s also remarkably plangent, given the looming threat of an abrupt and legally sanctioned government intrusion into their home once Richard and Mildred marry.
Nichols excels when he relies on his assuredly still camerawork to capture Edgerton and Negga’s soulfully placid performances against the backdrop of a paradoxical blend of pastoral expanses and viciously oppressive laws. In the hands of a lesser director, the audience may have only witnessed the Loving family’s car race off to Washington, D.C. for Richard and Mildred to marry out of state, and thus circumvent Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws. The audience would have been left with a romanticized portrait of a vintage American auto racing over a dewy morning. However, Nichols takes us into the car to witness what sadness lies within.
There, Mildred’s elderly father sits in the backseat. The empty space at his side is heartbreaking. There’s a sense of loss, because with such an ebullient family, there would have been a memorable wedding. But the scene doesn’t end on this note. After a few uncomfortable moments go by, Richard — played by Edgerton with a slow burn continuously smoldered by a prevailing sense gentle dignity — acknowledges his father-in-law’s plight by simply thanking him for coming along with them. Meanwhile, Negga — portraying Mildred as a fascinating combination of delicacy and wide-eyed resolve — quietly soaks in the moment for both its sadness and dignity. This, too, is an important portrayal of a compelling moment in American history.
In other areas of the film, however, Loving reverts to a paint by numbers legal biopic. After having plead guilty for violating Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, and receiving a suspended sentence to one-year imprisonment predicated on the probationary requirement that the two leave Virginia and not return together for a quarter century, the Lovings eventually elect to undergo years of appellate litigation to overturn the Virginia court’s decision. However, rather than focus on the emotional toll the family endures, Loving jumps too frequently to the point of view of two their ACLU attorneys, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass II). These scenes are handled with typical “Made for TV” flare: Cohen is conveyed as the young and inexperienced attorney who rattles off big yet misdirected ideas, while Hirschkop is the reserved skeptic who continuously tempers expectations. The dramatic element in their portrayal is almost entirely lost.
Presumably, Nichols aims to educate the audience on legal history, but he — like so many other directors of legal biopics — falls into the trap of over-generalization. Cohen and Hirschkop present only a cursory inspection of the Constitutional arguments involved in the case. Moreover, the film rosily treats the Supreme Court — introduced with a typical vertical pan shot up its ivory white columns as an unflappable paragon of progressive judicial activism. Indeed, it can be easy to watch Loving and overlook the Court’s more conservative benches both prior and subsequent to the Warren Court, each which were more reluctant to judicially expand certain civil rights and civil liberties than may seem, here. So much of how we live is determined by who governs during various stages of our lives. Loving brilliantly explores this concept early on, but then saps this acute truth in legal melodrama. For this reason, it is at times an uneven film.
However, Loving does have a memorable scene in legal storytelling. Subsequent to the film’s sentencing scene, Nichols opts away from tears, anger, speeches, or further litigation strategy. Instead, he presents a simple moment in which a court clerk coolly commands Richard to pay $72 in court fees for both himself and Mildred. Richard quietly signs the check. The fee, or what the Lovings had to pay for the privilege to be excommunicated from their home, equates to $588 dollars in 2016. This quiet, everyday court procedure shocks the conscience more than typical big court room melodrama not only for the insult put upon this couple after the sustained injury they have endured but also because the audience can relate to the feeling of money spilling out of their wallets against their wishes, as well.
It takes artistic conviction to eschew artificial dramatic piques and nadirs for what most of history has to offer, which is usually somewhere in between the two. Loving is to be commended for mostly exploring this region in which grossly overlooked emotional truths lie. If various other contemporary mediums would follow suit, perhaps our entertainment and political cultures would finally depart from snappy, polarized rhetoric. Continuation of the progress set forth by Richard and Mildred Loving is dependent on this important evolution in discourse taking place. The symbolism of their cause is no less urgent, now.