With his latest movie, Loving, writer-director Jeff Nichols holds back from amping up a story to allow its inherent power to resonate beyond the cinema screen. The best of his previous film, Midnight Special, did that (Midnight Special makes for a riveting chase film suffused in mystery — a film review), and Mud could have been better had it only been that way (Film review: ‘Mud’ makes for OK film but misses exploiting the power of mystery). Nichols has long showed he had it in him with only his second film, Take Shelter (‘Take Shelter’ offers powerful entry into film’s recent history of schizophrenic cinema). But now comes a film that demands just the right touch, and the filmmaker delivers.
Loving is based on the true story about Richard and Mildred Loving, whose coupling did away with the last of the unjust segregation laws in the United States: an ordinance that said black people could not marry white people. Joel Edgerton plays Richard, a young laborer in late 1950s Virginia, and Ruth Negga plays his wife Mildred. Beyond the rotten teeth and bleached hair, Edgerton humanizes Richard’s low-key and firm resilience with an honesty that comes from within. His warmth for Mildred is as palpable as his reluctance to be a hero.
Negga, on the other hand, grows from a similar temperament to a woman empowered to let her voice stand out against the prejudice without calling attention to herself. This is a woman moved for what’s right for something outside of her. She moves from being someone in hiding to a sort of self-awareness and a need for acknowledgement with an indistinguishable ease and naturalness.
Beyond the couple, the bias they face is equal opportunity. Mildred and Richard endure the same kind of looks from those who are black and white. It’s just enough confrontation to make the point and Nichols never pushes for more than that. While outsiders lean on disapproving glances, it is the authorities who will do the enforcing in this town, and when they do appear, they spring forth like a rage fearful unleashed.
The power in Loving comes from the simple things. It’s concentrated in Nichols’ spare dialogue reflexive of deeper experiences below the surface. Most characters speak in short sentences. When the Lovings decide to go to D.C. to get legally married, Mildred asks her father, “Daddy, what’s the city like?”
“It’s fine,” is all he says.
More ominously, when Richard’s mother informs him the police are looking for him. She says, “Sheriff’s deputy came by looking for you.”
“What did he want?” he asks.
“He wanted to find you.”
Just as simple and leaden as these conversations are the arguments against the two lovers mixing. Phrases like, “The blood don’t know what it wants to be” and “It’s God’s law” appear from those identified by different races. But contrasted with that, are shots like the couple turned face-to-face, in profile, their love apparent in the union of their eyes and the intensity of their support to one another. Nichols’ cinematic images, from warm closeups to wide-angle shots of the couple against the backdrop of a field, holding the promise of the world open to them become moving in their own innate quality.
This understated tone allows for a natural charm to come from a story that hindsight allows us a comfortable view to reflect on. It also allows for the power of loving, no matter who you are in love with, to come through and stand out for its own sublime power. When Richard turns down an opportunity to argue in front of the supreme court and his pro bono attorney asks him if he at all has a message for the judges, all he says, and all he needs to say is: “Tell the court I love my wife.”
Loving runs 123 minutes and is rated PG-13. It opens in our South Florida at Regal South Beach, AMC Aventura, Gateway 4 and Cinemark Palace on Friday, Nov. 11. For screening dates in your area, visit this link: www.focusfeatures.com/loving/theaters. It rolls out slowly and will be expanding to more theaters the following weekend and the weekend after that, as well. Focus Features invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.
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