Movie Review – Loving (2016)
Writer-director Jeff Nichols seems to operate better when he has a central character through which a dynamic performance can shine. Michael Shannon was that shining performance in Take Shelter (2011) and Matthew McConaughey was that shining performance in Mud (2013). Joel Edgerton could have potentially been that shining performance here, but Nichols, in an attempt to be faithful to the true story and real-life person, really keeps Edgerton understated and mostly mute. Despite the film being about a married couple, the majority of the movie is tipped toward the male character’s point-of-view. The movie favors his emotions as restrained as they are.
He is given moments where he’s affectionate and even laughing. He spends most of the movie worried and anxious. Edgerton plays Richard Perry Loving who ends up impregnating and marrying Mildred Delores Jeter, a black woman living in Caroline County, Virginia, which is about two hours southeast by car from Washington, DC. Ruth Negga (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and Preacher) plays Mildred. There is genuine affection between the two of them, but the reason for marrying might as well have been at shotgun. It’s suggested that the particular area where Richard and Mildred met is a colorblind and liberal area, but it’s a shame that Nichols doesn’t show the two of them actually meeting and building their relationship. The opening line is instead Mildred saying she’s pregnant, so we have to accept their relationship as something established off screen.
The beats that lead to the real-life, Supreme Court decision on June 12, 1967 that started with Richard and Mildred being arrested for miscegenation, or interracial marriage, are beats that are obvious and boring to watch after the couple decides to go forward with the case. Nichols could have drummed up some drama for that stuff in the third act, the inexperience of their lawyer, Bernard Cohen, played by Nick Kroll, for example, but Nichols doesn’t do much with that, aside from a couple of brief, comedic moments.
More drama is suggested in the physical threat that Richard feared would come to him and his family. Richard and Mildred had three children, and Richard was scared some racist would come to do them harm. Yet, nothing really comes of that either. It provides some minor tension, but not enough to make the movie rise out of its tedium. More drama is suggested when members of the black community push back and remind Richard that his whiteness and quite frankly maleness allow him more privilege and an out that black people around him don’t have. Yet, not much more of that is made of this push back.
The movie is just boring. I wish Nichols had expanded the film and given us more about other people’s reactions or other interracial couples affected. Despite the arrests themselves, the hardship and scope aren’t readily felt here. Aside from the issue inherent in this story, what this movie becomes is a kind of pastoral that pushes the idea that life in the country is better than life in the city and Nichols pushes this idea rather unfairly.
Mildred argues against life in the city. She comments that there’s no grass for her children in which to run. Her evidence are the hard streets of Washington, DC to where they move after their arrest for miscegenation, and in front of the house where they stay is a pathetic patch with some weeds sprouting out. This is unfair. DC like many cities has plenty of parks and green space. As a matter of fact, the L’Enfant plan, which was the basis for the city’s design called for numerous parks. The East Potomac Park is one such example, but we get the impression that Mildred never at any point explored the city or saw any of DC’s landscape.
Though it might have been true-to-life, the film depicts the children of Richard and Mildred as being in perhaps more danger in DC than in the country. Yes, while the likelihood of them being run over by a car is less, there are other perils to the country. After all, Virginia was a confederate state and it was a Virginia Ku Klux Klan leader that endorsed Donald Trump earlier this year, so obviously the KKK existed in the Old Dominion back in the 50’s and 60’s. Even though the couple wins their court case, that doesn’t mean people with racist beliefs automatically stop believing or feeling what they do.
Rated PG-13 for thematic materials.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 3 mins.