Loving: A (too tiny?) Portrait of a Marriage

LOVING  (2016)
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Focus features, 123 minutes, PG-13
* * *

Loving is a hard movie to review. On one hand, it focuses on the couple at the center of one of the most important legal decisions in American history: the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which overturned anti-miscegenation laws and paved the way for marriage freedom for all, including same-sex unions. On the other hand, the film's protagonists are so ordinary that it's hard to connect them to the legal precedent that bears their name. Director Jeff Nichols has the problem of trying to make an audience care about a couple with all the charisma of the backcountry Virginia dirt from whence they sprang. He doesn't entirely succeed.  

For those unfamiliar with the case, Richard Loving (1933-75) and Mildred Jeter (1939-2008) grew up in hardscrabble Caroline County, Virginia. Although he was white and Mildred was mixed race (Indian, black, white), they came of age in a part of Virginia where poor whites such as the Lovings interacted easily with people of color–a place where a shared rural values and lack of economic opportunity often trumped race. Richard and Mildred were childhood sweethearts even before they journeyed to the District of Columba to marry on June 12, 1958. Mildred was, by then, heavily pregnant with their first child. Had they stayed in Washington, you'd have never heard of them. Instead, they returned to Virginia. In the middle of the night, the police broke into their bedroom and arrested them for violating Virginia's 1924 Racial Integrity Act. When Richard pointed to their framed marriage certificate, he was told, "That's no good here." The Lovings were jailed, pleaded guilty to violating the law, and were banished from the state for 25 years with the understanding they'd be imprisoned if they were caught cohabiting or being together within Virginia's borders. The film follows their exile to Washington, where they had two more children; their attempts to live undetected in Virginia; and the circumstances that ultimately landed their case before the SCOTUS.

The viewer's dilemma is obvious from the start: the Lovings—aside from their racial difference–practically define the term "ordinary." They were rudimentarily educated, soft-spoken, and unremarkable people–he a bricklayer and she a homemaker. Their slice of Virginia was one where folks worked on and raced cars, drank in roadhouse bars, and picked tobacco. Director Nichols captures the vibe of a 1950s world in which few people challenged authority, hence we watch Richard seethe at their arrest, but not question it. Not that doing so was in character; his manner was as slow as that of the countryside. Appreciating this film requires that you surrender to its languid pace. Indeed, one of the more powerful points the film makes is that the Lovings were so unexceptional that one wonders why Virginia would want to bother two such harmless individuals. The pacing, though, is also the film's major problem. Richard (Joel Edgerton) is a man of so few words that the film is nearly silent when he's on camera. Mildred (Ruth Negga) is a step up on the laconic scale, but it's a very small skyward stride. We quickly get the idea that the prosecutors are morally challenged. Folks such as the Lovings can only be viewed as threats when privacy rights take a backseat to artificially constructed (and bigoted) views of purity and propriety. That's an important lesson, but it still leaves us with passive protagonists who come off as victims lacking agency.

I can understand why Nichols wouldn't want to make another courtroom saga, but the focus on the Lovings as a couple lacks the dramatic sparks of said filmed legal battles. Nichols pushes the court case so far into the background that the most compelling part of it is the Lovings' inability to comprehend the legal system. It doesn't help that Nichols reduces the ACLU's role to something more akin to a cartoon than as a champion of civil rights. Left on the table are options that might have been more interesting on the screen. Why, we wonder, was there so little overt racism in Caroline County when other parts of the South are aflame? Is that accurate, or was intolerance there simply a can of worms Nichols didn't wish to open? We don't even know how Richard perceived race. There is a short scene in which he appears to have never given it much thought, but it's hard to imagine that even a man as unreflective as he could reduce race to a simple, "I love my wife" statement. There's also a matter of the biggest liberty taken in the film, the decision to distill the tension to black and white terms. Although biographical details of Mildred remain scant, she emphasized her Rappahannock and Cherokee roots and indentified as Native American, not black. That didn't matter under Virginia law, but tinkering with Mildred's self-identification seems more a nod to contemporary sociology than to historical accuracy–to say nothing of being reductionist and robbing the film of an opportunity to discuss the central fictiveness of race.

In my view, the best way to enjoy this film is to lower your expectations and think of it more as quiet portrait of injustice rather than a drama. Remember that the Lovings were legally married for nearly a decade and still underwent travails. If the film makes you think more deeply about identity, privacy, fairness, and tolerance, it will have been two hours well spent. Just don't expect to lose your socks over visuals or dynamic performances. That's no rap on Edgerton or Negga. Not even actors as fine as they can make a Fiat 500 roar like a Ferrari.

Rob Weir

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