Loving: Love in a time of bigotry

March 24, 2017

 

Loving (PG)

Rating: 4 / 5

 

It's easy to forget that not so long ago interracial marriage was illegal and punishable by jail in 24 US states. But for one American couple that law would define—but not defy—their union.

 

From the moment they saw each other, Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving knew they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together. Their family and friends could also see they were made for each other, so in 1958 when Mildred discovers she’s pregnant there was only one thing for them to do—get  married.

 

As Mildred is black and Richard white, they are unable to marry in their home state of Virginia, as it happens to be one of the 24 states that deems such marriages unconstitutional. But buoyed by their love for each other, the two take matters into their own hands and travel to Washington DC to legalise their union.

 

A month later, they’re woken up in a violent night raid and arrested. Con- victed on felony charges, they’re given a choice: two years in jail or leave the state for 25 years. They leave, but return nine years later and repeal their case all the way to the US Supreme Court.

 

The ‘Loving versus the State of Virginia’ was a landmark court case in 1967. Not only did it allow Mildred and Richard and their three children to live peacefully in their home state, but it changed to  laws for all other interracial US couples who followed.

 

And yet few in the US, let alone out- side the country, knew about their story, and that included Loving writer/director Jeff Nichols.

 

“I felt I had a pretty good knowledge of civil rights history in this country and to not be aware of Richard and Mildred and to not know Loving versus the State of Virginia I was kind of shocked by it,” he told PBS News. I felt that others needed to know about it.”

 

Taking his cues from Nancy Buirski’s wonderful 2011 documentary, The Loving Story, Nichols has fashioned a well- researched, measured and somewhat old-fashioned  film that does justice to  the real Lovings and their families.

 

It also champions the people who played their own part in changing America. Lawyers Bernard S. Cohen and Philip J. Hirschkop (Nick Kroll and Jon Bass), who were young and fairly inexperienced when they took on the case, and Life photographer Grey Villet (played with consummate ease by Michael Shannon) whose candid photographs of the Lovings at home still radiate warmth and intimacy.

 

Much has been said about the fact that this quintessential US couple are played by a Brit (she’s Ethiopian/Irish) and an Australian, but this seems a moot point, as at its heart Loving is as universal as… well…love.

 

Both Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton disappear into their roles. And this is as much a nod to Nichols’ skill as a writer and director as it is to their considerable acting chops. Loving is a film that understands understatement, and much is conveyed through a glance, or in the case of the Lovings, touch. It’s unafraid of silence.

 

Neither Mildred nor Richard were attention seekers. They were simple people caught inside a maelstrom of change. And while they never once wavered, they also never sought fame or even acknowledgement. In Nichols’ touching homage, finally, they have both.

 

Highlight: an absence of cliché

Red flags: adult themes

 

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