Jeff Nichols’ ‘Loving’
Just the other week, while urging a friend to go see Barry Jenkins’ remarkable film Moonlight, my friend raised a quizzical eyebrow and asked, “Yes, but is it worthy?”
I understood his suspicion. I share his scepticism of the often overblown but stylistically conservative films that get championed during the awards season. I explained that I thought Moonlight owed nothing to prestige Hollywood cinema. Rather, I argued, it is a continuation and a very contemporary consolidation of the radical aesthetics of underground black cinema of the 1970s and ’80s. In addition to this, it built on – and took off – the equally intoxicating and subversive formalism of the queer cinema of the 1990s. I hope I persuaded him.
Our conversation began to replay in my head as I started to watch Jeff Nichols’ new film, Loving, about Mildred and Richard Loving, the plaintiffs in the 1967 United States Supreme Court decision that struck down state laws prohibiting interracial marriage.
Loving begins in Virginia in 1958, when Mildred announces she is pregnant. Defying both the law and the social injunctions of their rural communities, Richard proposes. They are married in Washington, DC, but are arrested when they return to their county and are paroled on the condition that they leave Virginia and don’t set foot in the state again for 25 years. In DC they tentatively begin their new life together, and they eventually have three children, but Mildred is never at peace in the big city, missing her family and kinship back home. Influenced by the rise of the civil rights movement, Mildred writes a letter to the attorney-general, Robert F. Kennedy, that eventually results in their case being taken up by the American Civil Liberties Union.
For the first 20 minutes or so of the film I found myself distinctly uncomfortable, and I think this discomfort had to do with the colossal historic weight of the Lovings’ story and whether the filmmakers were capable of doing justice to this family’s struggle. It is something for which to be exceedingly thankful that there is probably no theme that alienates a contemporary audience like the disgraceful segregationist laws that prohibited marriage between races. My disquiet arose from doubt that a Hollywood film was capable of dealing with the complexity of such a history, of tackling such evil without reducing its protagonists to clichéd approximations of, on one hand, righteousness, and, on the other, unalloyed wickedness. For us to step back from the 21st century and viscerally engage with the Lovings’ struggle as drama, we need to see how a culture of segregation gets into everyone’s heads.
I’m willing to wager that the concerns I had initially, about both veracity and worthiness, were paramount for the filmmakers as well. Loving is a quiet film that eschews histrionics and pomposity and if it never quite unshackles itself from the sentimental trajectory of the uplifting Hollywood biography, it does a damn good job trying. As Nichols showed previously in films such as Take Shelter and Mud, he has an unforced regard for rural life. Raised in Arkansas, he evinces neither romanticisation nor disdain for southern communities and, in both his directing and his writing, he is acutely sensitive to the rhythms of work and play in such communities, both black and white. This gentle and sincere sensitivity is pivotal in encouraging our trust in the drama. We recognise soon that Nichols is not going to demean his characters nor their world.
The low-key mise en scène should not be understood as naivety. He wisely keeps the unfolding birth of the civil rights movement and the ensuing courtroom drama at a distance, making his focus the relationship between Mildred and Richard. In this, the film reminded me of the work of Martin Ritt, one of the most underrated American directors and another filmmaker whose portrayals of rural life had real veracity and tenderness.
The core of the film is the Lovings’ marriage, the family they create, and the extended families of which they are a part. The move north to the industrial city is also one of the great themes of 20th-century African-American life and Loving explores faithfully what was lost as well as what was gained in this migration. The immorality of southern law refuses to acknowledge their union but the alienation of urban life is also something Mildred and Richard have to combat in their marriage.
Loving is a low-budget film by US standards, and it is possible that economic considerations further required the truncating of the historic legal story. If this is so, then it is a blessing. Nick Kroll plays Bernie Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who prosecutes their case, and I found myself resenting his presence whenever he turned up. Kroll is an engaging actor, and he doesn’t overplay the goofiness that is written into the role, but Nichols seems less comfortable with professional characters and consequently the scenes set in jails, courtrooms and legal chambers lack warmth and assuredness.
In the end what persuaded me about the film, and what allows it to shoulder the burden of its immense history, is its performers. Joel Edgerton as Richard and Ruth Negga as Mildred are phenomenal. Quite consciously, and I assume partly out of respect for the truth of the real-life couple, the script doesn’t offer them any grand emotional arias. Both actors remain loyal to a conception of working-class rural people who are distrustful of emotional overreach. Richard is suspicious of words and Edgerton conveys both his weariness and his strength through the stoic grace of his body. Negga’s performance is equally controlled, quietly conveying the aching for dignity that was central, and still remains imperative, to the struggle for civil rights. They are believable as young lovers and more importantly, by the end, persuasive as a couple who have learnt to compromise and to build on their love, whose first duty is always to their bond and to their families. It is in this conviction that we feel the terrible outrage of a law that would deny them such love and such bonds.
The cast is uniformly very fine, and I think one of Nichols’ great strengths as a director is his empathy for actors. In a much smaller but pivotal role, Marton Csokas manages to grant, if not sympathy, at least understanding to his racist sheriff. And Michael Shannon conveys world-weariness and a fierce creative intelligence as a photographer from Life magazine. Both actors are exceptional.
The film is seductively shot by Nichols’ long-time collaborator, cinematographer Adam Stone, who is alert to the beauty of both the land and faces in the south. And the production designer, Chad Keith, also works a small miracle with limited resources in conveying the shifts from the late ’50s to the late ’60s.
I suspect that when we use the word worthy as a gibe we are referring to something more than earnestness. Loving does have an earnest sensibility and possibly nowadays it is only filmmakers completely outside the Hollywood orbit who would be able to make a film of such a subject that risked frivolity or absurdity, or one that dared to throw our liberal pieties back in our faces. My sense is that a segment of the critical community use the word worthy as a substitute for the more loaded term PC, and if I am right in that I would hate to think audiences would stay away from Loving because they think they know what to expect. It is a solid and capable film and created with great fidelity and care. It honours Mildred and Richard Loving and it honours their history. I guess I was hoping for that and I was expecting that. But in the truthfulness and completeness of Edgerton’s and Negga’s performances, now that’s where I was astonished.
VISUAL ARTS O'Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism
QAGOMA, Brisbane, until June 11
THEATRE Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster
Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, March 15-26
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Old Parliament House, Canberra, March 11-19
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THEATRE Lady Eats Apple
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Geelong Gallery, until March 13
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Equality control". Subscribe here.