Cast: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Jon Bass, Michael Shannon
Director: Jeff Nichols
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Jeff Nichols is a humanist. Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special are all deeply human stories about ordinary people existing in a very specific milieu (in this case, the American Midwest). At times, he dips into genre; Take Shelter contains supernatural/apocalyptic themes, while Midnight Special is essentially a fractured family drama with sci-fi trappings. Elsewhere, he deals with coming-of-age tropes (Mud) and visceral sibling rivalry (Shotgun Stories), but in all cases, he exhibits a rare sensitivity to the rhythms of everyday life. His cinema is one in which the disillusionment of blue-collar Americans informs existential fears, a place where characters have the freedom to occupy a space which is more than simply a geographical location. With his latest film, Loving, he's tackling a true story with weighty social importance, but chooses to highlight humanity over speechifying, empathy over issues, and silence over court room grandstanding. It's a wonderful piece of work in which everything is dialed down to a hushed mumble.
The story follows interracial couple Richard and MIldred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively) in Virginia's Caroline County as they travel to D.C. in order to get married. Upon their return, they are instantly arrested for "cohabitation", spend some time in jail, and subsequently hire a lawyer. This being 1960's Virginia law, they are given a 25-year ban from being together in the same state and are forced to move to D.C. in order to raise their children. During the following five years, the ACLU gets involved with their dilemma, headed by two earnest lawyers (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass), who believe they can take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Rather than focus on the nuts and bolts of the legal defense, Nichols concentrates on the everyday lives of the Lovings as they navigate racial discrimination and how that affects their marriage over an extended period. What this means is that the film becomes less about ideology (although the outcome would essentially repeal country-wide anti-miscegenation laws) and more about the humanity of the couple themselves.
In this regard, Edgerton and Negga give sensitively handled, empathetic performances. Both actors take what could be stereotypical activist-types and imbue them with subtle nuances; revealing the depths of their devotion to one another as well as their distinct differences. Edgerton plays Richard as a stoic introvert (except when he's drinking with his pals), someone who grows increasingly nervous about privacy, and most crucially, as a man of few words. Negga, meanwhile, gives the more approachable performance as a woman both soft-spoken and internally defiant, submissive yet forward-thinking, and most importantly, someone who will do whatever it takes in the fight for basic human rights. There are a few scenes where she simply has conversations on the phone with members of the ACLU, and Nichols wisely never cuts back and forth, instead keeping his camera fixed on the emotional complexities writ large on Negga's face. It is, without a doubt, superlative acting.
Formally, Nichols sticks to his usual social-realist aesthetic; forgoing dramatic swells or fist-pumping speeches in lieu of down to earth mundanity. Mostly, Loving is a film about how the tumultuous years hone and shape these two ordinary people who merely want inalienable civil rights during an era where such a thing was still an uphill battle. Honestly, their story resonates perhaps even more today in our post-Trump election America where the very ideals the couple were striving for are once again under attack. There's anger and urgency here, but Nichols is content to allow such sentiments to simmer at a low boil because as human beings, the Lovings were never sloganeering activists shouting from the court steps. As such, the film builds its power from the authenticity of lives struggling to overcome insidious bigotry who, in their own unassuming way, quietly changed the course of history.