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Review: Loving (2016)

Loving (2016)

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

Premise: Based on a true story. Set in Virginia in the late 1950s and early 60s, interracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga) are arrested for violating anti-miscegenation laws. Their pursuit of justice eventually leads to a landmark Supreme Court case.

What Works: While love stories are a well-established part of cinema, marriage tends to be treated a bit differently by moviemakers. While there are obviously many married characters in film, marriage itself is usually characterized as an encumbering institution for squares that makes people miserable. It’s telling that many love stories focus on the passion of courtship rather than the work of living together. Loving is a movie about marriage itself and it is an affirmation of the dignity of a committed couple seeking to make a life together. This film is a cinematic case for the value of marriage as an individual right and as a public good; the picture takes the cinematic love story further than it usually goes by demonstrating that love itself is not enough. The Lovings are a couple who are committed to each other and wish to raise their children in harmony with the rest of the world but society won’t allow them to do that. They are turned into refugees in their own country, living their lives in isolation and paranoid of reprisals from the law or vigilantes. This film links the commitment that the couple has for each other and for their children—in a word, their sense of family—with the need for a physical space to live and work. The movie depicts family and home as being inextricably linked. That’s a much smarter and deeper examination of commitment and marriage than Hollywood usually provides. The movie works as well as it does largely because of the performances by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga as Richard and Mildred Loving. Neither performance is especially flashy but both are quite good in their roles. Edgerton in particular is nuanced with much going on beneath the surface of his performance. As the actor depicts him, Richard didn’t like being in the spotlight and his persecution by the law impugned his manhood. Richard’s struggle with his own dignity is subtle but powerful. Negga is also quite good. Like her husband, Mildred has a quiet dignity that surfaces as she goes about the work of petitioning for the rights of her family. These two make a convincing couple that is empathetic and makes the audience want to see them succeed.

What Doesn’t: The depiction of racism in Loving isn’t especially challenging. As presented in the film, racism is a flaw of country bumpkins living in the sticks instead of an unfortunate feature of the fabric of American society. That makes it easy for the audience to dismiss racism as a figment of the past rather than relevant to the present. Loving also suffers from the storytelling flaws frequent to movies adapted from real life. The plot is a succession of historical events rather than an escalating narrative. As a piece of drama, Loving does not feel as though it is driving toward a climax. One event is followed by the next but the movie lacks a sense of momentum. There are few concrete stakes and at the end of the picture there’s not much of a sense that anything has been accomplished and certainly not anything of historical significance. As a movie about race, Loving raises some interesting questions but it doesn’t follow them through. Richard is confronted by his African American friends and in-laws. They argue that since Mildred is black the consequences of their marriage will inevitably be worse for her and he can walk away because of his whiteness. The filmmakers don’t seem to quite know what to do with these ideas and they exist in isolation from the rest of the events of the story.

Bottom Line: Loving is a good film. It avoids melodrama almost to a fault; the picture might have benefitted from a more pronounced dramatic structure. But it is a beautifully made ode to marriage and the strength of family.

Episode: #626 (December 18, 2016)