Directed by Jeff Nichols, (Mud, Take Shelter, Midnight Special) Produced by Ged Doherty, Colin Firth, Nancy Buirski, Sarah Green, Marc Turtletaub, Peter Saraf. Screenplay by Jeff Nichols, Based on The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski. Cast. JOEL EDGERTON -RICHARD LOVING, RUTH NEGGA – MILDRED LOVING, MARTON CSOKAS – SHERIFF BROOKS, NICK KROLL – BERNIE COHEN, TERRI ABNEY – GARNET JETER, ALANO MILLER – RAYMOND GREEN , JON BASS – PHIL HIRSCHKOP – MICHAEL SHANNON – GREY VILLET. Music by David Wingo, Cinematography Adam Stone, Edited by Julie Monroe, Production companies – Big Beach, Raindog Films. Cert. 12. Duration 2hrs 3mins.
The true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who were arrested in 1950s Virginia for the crime of getting married. The year is 1958 and the Civil Rights Movement has barely begun. Richard, a white construction worker, decides to propose to Mildred, a black woman. What should be a happy beginning to their life together soon becomes an arduous legal and political battle against the state and society. Driven out of their hometown, Richard and Mildred Loving spend almost ten years fighting for the right to live as a family in the town they consider home. They push their case as far as the Supreme Court, resulting in the landmark annulment of the discriminatory Virginian law banning interracial marriage.
Opening with the face of Ruth Negga, pensive and seeming forlorn the frame extends to include Joel Edgerton as they contemplate an event that will cement and form their relationship. It is in this context of inter-racial harmony, togetherness and unity we are then shown the integrated social Virginia backdrop. The backdrop of motor racing or as they have it, drag racing petrol heads and enthusiasts of different races, no pun intended, relax and compete and show their macho skills in basic road souped up cars. Nothing too fancy. In the late fifties when this is an automobile high customised era of ‘winged’ chariots with valances, fins, chrome, tailegate motors expressing freedom these racers are mere tools of competition and all the scrutineering follows the rules. Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton) is a bricklayer/blocklayer working mainly on new houses with a white crew. It’s noticeable the workplace is segregated and I didn’t see any black workers on the sites where it is a good payer and is regular work. Mildred Loving nee Jeter (Ruth Negga) is s field worker in a plantation of tobacco and is part of a young coloured community whose work is labourious and achingly demanding. The mix and split of these Virginias is already an orchestrated unity. They are joined but separated by class. The hoe-down after the Drag racing shows them together as free spirits raised and enjoying themselves. The reality is the separation is constructed by the state racial fundementalists to manage and control them. The sense of order is plain as no revolution is happening and only later when the marches of Martin Luther King emerge via. the TVs screen which is a new medium delivering its dose of engineered mostly white produced programmes, is there a consciousness of the underlying oppressed people.
Breaking the circle
By telling this true story with an impeccable faithfulness to the events and without overdramatising the conflicts Jeff Nichols knows what matters. The couples relationship is dealt with as an everyday love between neighbours. Richards family is a farmstead with a few barns and no father. His father in the past worked with for a black man andtherefore Richard’s heightened awareness of difference has another dimension. He knows the establishing of a means to make a living is so important and management of the returns, resources, is a separate thing entirely. Unions and workers rights themselves in their infancy. Richards home is a 5 step timber house. I call it a 5 step verandah house as it is the Southern style of open porch under a roof edge raised as a stoop common throughout the vastness of the country they live in. There is room to breathe the night air. Mildred’s house hasby contrast a 2 step verandaed home. There’s is a slightly lower less long established home. The settlers of white stock brought this form as a colonial imprint and the black people who they now lifted with took up the style of living. Jeff Nichols takes this environment as his main template going forward in the story. The day to day is familiar and working to mutual advantage within the restraints and constrictions. It would be acceptable for a white and black person to live together, sleep together providing they were not married and they would have to suffer the isolation having offspring would bring and perhaps be forced to move under those circumstances.
In this story the most important thing is the groundbreaking change the Loving’s bring about. It is told from the very first instance when they decide to get married out of state in Washington D.C. Colombia and in a matter of fact way it happens in a registry office with Mildred’s Dad as a witness. They all have a journey to D.C. Which underlines the backwardness of where they came from. In the recent elections the states around Washington D.C. were distinctly democrat hence the poor turn out for the inauguration. The movement of reconciliation – first of ridding themselves of the colonialist English/British enslavers then the Abraham Lincoln abolition of slavery had its focus here. The slavery remained in effect through the inequality and suppression of cultural freedom which the right to choose who they married underlined.
So the first time the legal side of things arises is when they live openly as a married couple and the local police act on instructions to arrest them. It results in a court case and with local representation they accept their fate and move out of state to avoid incarceration and separation. Mildred is very much now the focus of the film as she raises a family with the help of relatives they have a home and we notice the children growing in a small enclosed space. Some direct referencing by Neff Nichols to the urban nature of this existence is played out but now the singularity of their case comes to the notice of the American Civil Liberties organisation and in steps another principal performer. Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) who is a rookie human rights lawyer full of optimistic favour but little common sense. There then is the highlight of the movie for me a meeting in which he sequesters an office of a Law firm and manages to take on the gravitas and bearing to welcome Richard and Mildred to the concept of challenging through the courts the injustice they met in their home state of Virginia. His niavity is very funny if it were not so devoid of reality. Nevertheless as things move on they find a way to advance the case. Into the package comes a Human Rights Lawyer who knows which buttons of legislature to press and the sequence is followed through. Quite interestingly and it’s an obvious choice made, little ‘Courtroom Drama’ by way of the tension filled portrayal of landmark cases some directors ratchet up, we are treated to a matterfact brief hearing of the issues in succinct facts which is a very, very important factor in this films mastery of a difficult a prolonged process. It is a very wise move not to Labour on the machinations but put the case up front and central. Cohen. And his cohort spelling it out. Judgements follow.
Pace and time
The film is slow and changes in the story are therefore anticipated given the known history if not the longevity of the whole sorry apartheid. Racial conflicts and violence are eschewed and it is a story well told due to the simplicity of the families confined to the story. The movements between them for certain events and the passing of time is only loosely appreciated by the children. An awful lot of the time Richard is tinkering at cars and is on the sidelines but fully behind the battle Ruth takes a great deal of interest in and is the titans holding on to the political and gigantic nature of it. Possibly it might be true to say the film sags in the middle and is in need of an uplift which comes in the form of the case taking on its seniority. The state of Virginia need be challenged in the Supreme Court where about one in 400 cases assigned to it are every taken up at this level. As interracial marrying was against the law – a matter of “miscegenation”, that notably science based attribution, has them after the harassment and being locked up, guided through Mildred’s having initially written to Bobby Kennedy, the ACLU is able to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court and change America’s ugly Jim Crow race laws of the 50s and 60s.
I found this film worked by following in the middle of the story the emotional switches and triggers Mildred Loving nee Jeter (Ruth Negga) produces from the very first frame. She is intelligent, graceful, dignified and assured of her worth. Richard is also sure of his love and is unable to express it the same way which shows when he is a backcourt no comment reply outside a courthouse to the TV whereas Mildred is despite the signs to the contrary – hopeful. Jon Bass as Phil Hirschcop is splendidly youthful and fits the pieces of the jigsaw together in terms of the Law. Both he and Nick Kroll as Bernie Cohen derserve a second mention as they are a unit playing off each other’s belief in the strength of the Law and the ability of the Supreme Court to hear and accept their arguments which in effect they do and it is no small achievement. Micheal Shannon who appears in several character roles in Jeff Nichols films is cast as the Life photographer reporter who visits the Lovings and creates a US media phenomenon of them as a normal couple in a normal state of marriage growing up raising children. They are hard working and it’s is as he shows it. Despite the dip in the middle this is a carefully crafted and very watchable film and has important nuances and insights which are seldom given space. I thoroughly recommend a viewing.
2 February 2016
Screening at QFT from Fri 3 Feb – Thurs 16 Feb