“Loving” is a Restrained and Triumphant Challenge of Institutional Racism

In Loving, Writer-director Jeff Nichols expertly relays the real-life story of Mildred and Richard Loving, the couple who were prosecuted under Virginia’s interracial marriage laws which and led to the watershed case in the Supreme Court Loving v. Virginia in 1967.  In a story fraught with such racial tensions and the potential for ugly subject matter, the major triumph of Nichols’s film is in how it remains reserved and above any kind of melodrama.  There is a patient, quiet quality to this story, and Nichols and his actors positively revel in it.  From the tone and themes of the film, to the pacing and muted performances, Loving takes its cue from the seriousness and maturity of its eponymous main characters.  The result is a grown-up historical drama revealing the more subtle horrors of institutional racism and the power that love and freedom have to combat it.

The story begins with brilliant simplicity:  Mildred (Ruth Negga) declares to Richard Loving (Joel Edgerton), “I’m pregnant”.  The worry is written on Mildred’s face, but as Richard fails to suppress an excited smile, the moment is realized for the joy it contains, not the problem it presents.  In an attempt to lend as much legal legitimacy to their union, Richard drives Mildred and her father to Washington, D.C., where the couple are married.  Ultimately, this matters little, as Richard and Mildred are arrested in the middle of the night for co-habitation.  The ultimate sentence is for the two to leave Virginia and not return together for a period of 25 years, a plea bargain that is agreed upon to prevent actual prison time for the Lovings.

This plot has great potential for going overboard with melodrama, but this is not the case at all.  Of course, there are direct confrontation with racist lawmen, genuine threats to the Lovings’ safety, and depressing matter-of-fact declarations from various friends and family members, but this is not A Time to Kill or Mississippi Burning.  There is wonderful restraint in Nichols’s storytelling.  This helps ground the story more in reality and has the additional benefit of casting racism in its more subtle, devious, and legal forms.  The fallout reverberates more emotionally or spiritually for the Lovings:  they have to leave their hometown and their families, live in a big city, and feel their spirits crushed underneath the unfairness of it all.

The pacing of the plot takes the same form as the story:  reserved and patient.  It takes place over many years, and it is well into the movie until Mildred decides to write a letter to Robert Kennedy to ask for help with their situation and an ACLU lawyer sees the potential for taking the case all the way o the Supreme Court.  And throughout the film, there really aren’t any big “gotcha” moments, or big swelling triumphant sequences.  It is jut Richard and Mildred, loving each other and making a life together as best they can and confronting each challenge to their love as it comes.  It is a slog towards freedom.

This patient mood is compounded by the acting talent, especially the leads.  Despite being entirely justified, Richard and Mildred never lose their cool in a huge bombastic moment (you know, to drive the point home that racism is bad, m’kay?).  Look, I love Spotlight, but that scene where Mark Ruffalo explodes in the newsroom is over-the-top and out of place in an otherwise reserved film.  There’s nothing like this in Loving, but Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton both emote with some astounding subtlety.  They rarely explode with anger or play up a “woe is me” angle, but you nonetheless feel their heartaches, fears, and hopes in each scene.  The Lovings are living their lives, a day at a time.

The simplicity of the filmmaking belies the multiple themes and their various interactions.  The major theme of the film is the importance of freedom, and how choosing who you get to love is one of the most intimate and cherished liberties.  Beset against this freedom is the ugliness of racism, in this case a cultural and institutionalized form of racism.  There certainly are overtly racist characters in Loving, but they are placed in the story so as to draw attention to the horrible legality of it all.  The most blatant racist in the film is the arresting officer, squarely condemning the authority as much as the vile doctrine of racism.  The film briefly shows some racist opinions of community members, but the hillbilly yokel who throws bricks through windows, burns effigies, and shouts the appropriate epithet in directionless anger is thankfully missing.

Loving works too hard to resort to such laziness, and the result is a mature and patient expression of the immutable power of love and freedom to triumph over hatred.  Jeff Nichols is an expert filmmaker, and in Loving he has delivered a considered challenge to racism in all its forms, especially the more subtle and devious versions.  It is a beautiful film, and respects and honors the memories of Mildred and Richard Loving.

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