Reviews

'Loving', An Urgent Work of Compelling Quietude

Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga in Loving (2016)

Loving is particularly resonant at a time when many in America may feel as if their own inherent rights are on shaky ground.


Loving

Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon, Nick Kroll, Jon Bass II
Studio: Big Beach Films
US Release Date: 2016-11-04

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.

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors


David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.

Music

David Lord Salutes Collaborators With "Cloud Ear" (premiere)

David Lord teams with Jeff Parker (Tortoise) and Chad Taylor (Chicago Underground) for a new collection of sweeping, frequently meditative compositions. The results are jazz for a still-distant future that's still rooted in tradition.

Music

Laraaji Takes a "Quiet Journey" (premiere +interview)

Afro Transcendentalist Laraaji prepares his second album of 2020, the meditative Moon Piano, recorded inside a Brooklyn church. The record is an example of what the artist refers to as "pulling music from the sky".

Music

Blues' Johnny Ray Daniels Sings About "Somewhere to Lay My Head" (premiere)

Johnny Ray Daniels' "Somewhere to Lay My Head" is from new compilation that's a companion to a book detailing the work of artist/musician/folklorist Freeman Vines. Vines chronicles racism and injustice via his work.

Music

The Band of Heathens Find That Life Keeps Getting 'Stranger'

The tracks on the Band of Heathens' Stranger are mostly fun, even when on serious topics, because what other choice is there? We all may have different ideas on how to deal with problems, but we are all in this together.

Music

Landowner's 'Consultant' Is OCD-Post-Punk With Obsessive Precision

Landowner's Consultant has all the energy of a punk-rock record but none of the distorted power chords.

Film

NYFF: 'American Utopia' Sets a Glorious Tone for Our Difficult Times

Spike Lee's crisp concert film of David Byrne's Broadway show, American Utopia, embraces the hopes and anxieties of the present moment.

Music

South Africa's Phelimuncasi Thrill with Their Gqom Beats on '2013-2019'

A new Phelimuncasi anthology from Nyege Nyege Tapes introduces listeners to gqom and the dancefloors of Durban, South Africa.

Music

Wolf Parade's 'Apologies to the Queen Mary' Turns 15

Wolf Parade's debut, Apologies to the Queen Mary, is an indie rock classic. It's a testament to how creative, vital, and exciting the indie rock scene felt in the 2000s.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Books

Literary Scholar Andrew H. Miller On Solitude As a Common Bond

Andrew H. Miller's On Not Being Someone Else considers how contemplating other possibilities for one's life is a way of creating meaning in the life one leads.

Music

Fransancisco's "This Woman's Work" Cover Is Inspired By Heartache (premiere)

Indie-folk brothers Fransancisco dedicate their take on Kate Bush's "This Woman's Work" to all mothers who have lost a child.

Film

Rodd Rathjen Discusses 'Buoyancy', His Film About Modern Slavery

Rodd Rathjen's directorial feature debut, Buoyancy, seeks to give a voice to the voiceless men and boys who are victims of slavery in Southeast Asia.

Music

Hear the New, Classic Pop of the Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" (premiere)

The Parson Red Heads' "Turn Around" is a pop tune, but pop as heard through ears more attuned to AM radio's glory days rather than streaming playlists and studio trickery.

Music

Blitzen Trapper on the Afterlife, Schizophrenia, Civil Unrest and Our Place in the Cosmos

Influenced by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Blitzen Trapper's new album Holy Smokes, Future Jokes plumbs the comedic horror of the human condition.

Music

Chris Smither's "What I Do" Is an Honest Response to Old Questions (premiere + interview)

How does Chris Smither play guitar that way? What impact does New Orleans have on his music? He might not be able to answer those questions directly but he can sure write a song about it.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Fire in the Time of Coronavirus

If we venture out our front door we might inhale both a deadly virus and pinpoint flakes of ash. If we turn back in fear we may no longer have a door behind us.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.