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November 11, 2016

If I’d jumped on this review as soon as I saw Jeff Nichols’ Loving, the results would have been somewhat different. Looking back half a century at Loving v. Virginia, with Obergefell v. Hodges hovering in the recent past, it seems inconceivable that Richard and Mildred Loving’s relationship could be objectionable to anyone. And yet I wake up this morning in a country soon to be controlled by factions that make the reality of 1958’s Virginia much more present.

Loving departs from Nichols’ previous features in one very notable respect: the lack of tension. Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special are all shot through with the ominous sense of some impending breakthrough. Loving points to no such climax, even though the usual rules of historical civil rights films say it should. The story of Loving v. Virginia would normally be built around a steadily rising sequence of incidents and battles culminating in the impassioned arguments in the Supreme Court. But that’s not the story that Nichols is telling.

This is Loving: the story of a white man, Richard Perry Loving (Joel Edgerton), and a black and native woman, Mildred Delores Jeter (Ruth Negga), who only wanted to build a life together. They weren’t looking to defy the law and pick a fight. Edgerton plays Richard as a simple bricklayer, or maybe even a bit slow, as if he’s almost too dumb to realize that anyone would even care that his wife’s skin is a different color than his own. Which is not to say that he lacks any emotional nuance in their relationship. Negga and Edgerton have an easy chemistry that many real-life couples would envy. It’s a beautiful little love story, unremarkable in all respects except that a Caroline County sheriff (Marton Csokas) finds out about it and enforces the anti-miscegenation law.

The Lovings cut a plea deal which barred them from Virginia for 25 years, and moved into the District of Columbia. But they never enjoyed life in the city, and Mildred hated raising her children away from the farmland she’d grown up on. In 1964, she wrote to Bobby Kennedy, who put her in contact with lawyers from the ACLU — Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) and Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) — who began working the case up through the courts.

But during that phase, Nichols barely shows us the inside of a courtroom. The legal details are all but immaterial in the face of this couple’s simple and obvious love for each other, and that’s what he chooses to focus on. He tells their story just as Life magazine photojournalist Grey Villet (Michael Shannon) did in 1966. Cohen and Hirschkop’s oral arguments are delivered calmly, with the Court around them abstracted away. And when the decision comes in, there is no momentous reading. Cohen relays it over the phone to Mildred, who watches Richard playing in the backyard with their children. When she hangs up, nothing has changed, and nothing will ever be the same.

To watch Loving is to be as incredulous as Richard himself to think someone could possibly have a problem with this relationship. It seems inevitable that the law against it would be struck down. It seems inevitable that bans on same-sex marriage would fall. How can someone look at these two people and hate what they made?

That’s a question I still don’t understand, but it seems obvious that half the country either does, or doesn’t mind handing power to those who do. Is it possible to hate these people that much? to have them in mind and say no, they are not worthy of the same respect and dignity? Or can someone only make that decision in ignorance and darkness, never conceiving of the real human persons of Richard and Mildred Loving, separate from the abstract idea of interracial marriage? Or, for that matter, of James Obergefell and John Arthur as real people, separate from the abstract idea of same-sex marriage?

Part of me clings to the idea that such hatred at a scale large enough to swing national elections is only possible in the abstract, and that the underlying “principles” are easily maintained only so long as they are kept from crashing on the shoals of actual human experience. The usual way of telling this story allows the audience to think of it as a clash of ideas and principles. In ignoring them, Nichols forces us to look directly at the real couple at the center, and dares any naysayer to find fault with them.

A week ago it seemed simple and obvious that nobody could. This morning, it seems vital.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.

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