Far too often when a film is centered around a famous historical event or landmark court case, instead of focusing on compelling characters and interesting stories behind the events, viewers are forced to sit through preachy and vapid speeches that are emotionally manipulative and hammer home the obvious fact that the good guys are right.
Jeff Nichols’ “Loving,” which takes inspiration from the 2011 documentary “The Loving Story,” has the opportunity to be especially manipulative. The film focuses on the background of the landmark civil rights case Loving v. Virginia, which overturned laws preventing interracial marriage. However, Nichols doesn’t allow the film to jump off the rails into hysterical, over-the-top preaching. Instead, the movie offers a restrained look into the lives of two normal people. The point of “Loving” isn’t the famous civil rights case, but is rather the human struggle of having the freedom to love.
During the summer of 1958 in rural Virginia, Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white construction worker, proposes to his black girlfriend Mildred (Ruth Negga). They plan to start a family, but a life-altering roadblock stands in their way: their interracial marriage is prohibited by state law, forcing them to take a journey to Washington, D.C. to officialize their union before returning to Virginia. One night, state authorities discover their marriage license and the two are arrested. The couple is eventually released, but under the condition that they won’t return to Virginia for 25 years. This prompts them to move to Washington, D.C. The couple struggles to adapt to their new life, as they are far from home and their future in the city is uncertain. But as the civil rights movement reaches full swing, Richard and Mildred are given an opportunity to return to their old way of life.
From beginning to end, Nichols never attempts to heavy-handedly preach that the injustice done to the Lovings is wrong or immoral, nor does he insult the intelligence of his audience with moralizing speeches.
Instead, Nichols tells the story of the Lovings with a sense of level-headedness. Even when the couple is denied their rights, there’s no feeling of outrage, only sorrow.
This balanced and undramatic approach to telling the Lovings’ story parallels how the couple is portrayed in the film. From the start, it is clear that the Lovings are a couple enveloped in extraordinary circumstances who only want a normal life in the company of their friends and family. They never want to be in the spotlight or to be seen as great civil rights activists.
In fact, Richard and Mildred decline to appear in front of the Supreme Court. Rarely are they outraged at the injustices they face. They are consistently portrayed with dignity, making the audience more sympathetic to their cause.
The Lovings’ main motivation for pursuing the historic legal battle isn’t a grand undertaking of fighting for everyone’s rights. Rather, it’s a fight to provide a better life for their children.
The importance of the landmark case is wisely downplayed by Nichols. The hearings only briefly occur at the end of the film, allowing it to focus on the characters behind the case.
The Lovings’ hometown of Central Point, Virginia is portrayed in a much better light than the claustrophobic and sometimes dangerous streets of Washington, D.C. As the city becomes unlivable for the family, they feel an urgency to return home to the charming rural town. Once again, this is a move that humanizes the characters and makes them feel like real people.
While the Loving children are pivotal characters in the story, they aren’t featured prominently in the film. Instead, there are other memorable side characters.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyer who takes the Lovings’ case, Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), is a pleasant distraction from the couple’s struggles. At first he seems out of his mind by suggesting extreme legal tactics that Richard scoffs at, such as getting arrested again. However, Cohen proves to be a quirky yet effective ally. While he is an important character, the arguments he presents to the Supreme Court are glossed over. Once again, this proves the film is not about the gravity of the landmark case. While Kroll, known mainly for his comedic roles, may seem like an unorthodox choice, his portrayal of the awkward lawyer is memorable.
Grey Villet (Michael Shannon), a Time Magazine photographer sent to the Loving household, is another character that doesn’t get much screen time. However, Shannon’s portrayal of the character makes Villet’s scenes count. Nearly as reserved and awkward as Richard at first, Villet shows respect for the family. He takes photos only when they’re appropriate and nonintrusive, unlike the courtroom reporters who hound the couple with questions. Shannon infuses his role with the same understated dignity that Richard and Mildred possess.
“Loving” isn’t a historical drama that’s bursting with tension or excitement; it may be boring to watch for some. However, Nichols is able to craft a realistic and moving film that doesn’t exaggerate or glamorize its subjects. The only things that Richard and Mildred are shown to be in the film are who they were historically: ordinary people who were forced into the most extraordinary of circumstances.