“Visible, clear, and comprehensive, but too distant to feel truly naturalistic.”
by Ken Bakely
Somewhere in Jeff Nichols’ Loving, amidst careful recreation of historical events and rugged, washboard cinematography and stoic, rustic performances, the film loses its impact, its guttural soul. What’s left? A nice movie, to be sure, but not one with any real urgency or intense drive. In a painstaking quest to create glowing, prestigious biographical filmmaking, a very human love story at the core of the 123 minute movie seems to be diminished. Nichols approaches the material as through a glass veneer – visible, clear, and comprehensive, but too distant to feel truly naturalistic.
In 1967, sixteen U.S. states had laws which prohibited interracial marriage. Those regulations were struck down following a ruling from the Supreme Court, in the case of Loving v. Virginia. It originated with a union which had occurred nine years earlier, between Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), a white man, and Mildred Jeter (Ruth Negga), of black and Native American ancestry. They married in Washington, D.C., knowing that their state of residence (Virginia) would not recognize their relationship. When they are arrested and held in violation of the law back home, a plea bargain results in them not having to serve jail time, provided that they leave the state for the next twenty-five years.
Richard and Mildred move to D.C. and have children, but grow frustrated with their inability to visit their families and longtime friends. Mildred takes the initiative to seek legal help and challenge the ruling. It snowballs faster than either she or or her husband could have expected, as the American Civil Liberties Union agrees to take on their case, on the recommendation of the Attorney General’s office. Soon, the Lovings’ humble, fitting surname will take on a whole new legacy.
Loving isn’t a bad movie, but it fails to thrive. There are individual aspects which excel – Ruth Negga’s quietly powerful performance, with passion bubbling beneath a stressed and weathered exterior, is not to be forgotten. Furthermore, cinematographer Adam Stone is able to stun when shooting open, rural sections of the mid-Atlantic plain, and there’s a pretty, quasi-monochromatic tinge which exudes a feeling of historical magnitude. Yet the collected parts of the production feel lacking. It’s hard to appreciate this or anything else when it feels like the cameras and actors are moving around in a waxy world. Nichols’ screenplay is mediocre, running from scene to scene in a structure which seems perfunctory: chronological without anything which interlinks the emotional center of the film.
There is an undoubtedly great movie that can be made from this story. The combination of legal tension, landmarks of history, and the natural drama of love is prime. It’s not present here. Loving is ultimately too undone by its stoic qualities to fulfill the main task of this kind of plot: maintain the emotional investment of the audience. We recognize the importance of Richard and Mildred Loving, and so does this film. Nichols, however, fails to convey this in appropriately exciting ways. There are two scenes set in courtrooms, both the same low-level house which delivers the first quarter-century ban. The actual Supreme Court decision itself is delivered over the phone. We don’t see it, we don’t even hear it. It’s a dry and dusty affair, like a cutout from a history book which never activates the mind. The road to mediocrity is paved with good intentions.