Sunday 7 July 2019

Movie Review: Loving (2016)

A historical biography, Loving is the story of the romance that resulted in a legal challenge on laws banning mixed-race marriage in Southern states.

It's the late 1950s in rural Virginia. In a small but diverse Caroline County community, bricklayer and car mechanic Richard Loving, (Joel Edgerton), who is white, is very much in love with Mildred (Ruth Negga), a local black woman. After she announces her pregnancy they get married in Washington DC and start planning to build a house. It does not take long for local sheriff Brooks (Marton Csokas) and his men to burst in at midnight and arrest Richard and Mildred for violating Virginia's law banning interracial marriage.

Judge Bazile (David Jensen) suspends their one year prison sentence on condition they leave the state for 25 years. They relocate to Washington DC, where the family grows to three kids. But the lure of home is strong and with the civil rights movement gaining momentum, Mildred writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, seeking his intervention. The case is referred to the American Civil Liberties Union, and lawyer Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll) is appointed to investigate appeal options.

A story of a humble and simple couple who became the catalysts for historic change, Loving is as low key and understated as its reluctant protagonists. Director Jeff Nichols also wrote the script, and he adopts a suitably detached observer tone, avoiding any hint of speeches, moralizing or even condemnation. Nichols also resists the temptation to enter the courtroom for any longer than needed. Once their case makes it to Supreme Court Richard and Mildred decide to stay away, and Nichols respects their decision and avoids turning Loving into a courtroom drama.

The story only gains strengths from it rejection of grandstanding and labels of heroism or villainy. Richard is a lumbering man of few words, his brooding exterior hiding a sensitive soul deeply dedicated to Mildred. In a memorably minimalist performance Joel Edgerton often occupies the screen with awkward silence and uncomfortable shuffling.

Ruth Negga compensates with a soft smile, a home-grown glint in her eye and a more patient stance. Mildred is devoted to her roots, her community and her new husband and growing family. Always a misfit in urban Washington DC, it is Mildred who takes the initiative to write to Kennedy, and then agitates Richard into accepting meetings with the ACLU. She is also marginally more comfortable with the media and engages with the press to shine a light on their case. Michael Shannon has a one-scene appearance as a Life magazine photographer.

Loving finds tender beauty in the elegance of rural life, Richard and Mildred the products of a tight-knit community that has largely embraced diversity and moved past labels based on skin colour. As is often the case, seminal change traces back to the most humble of origins.

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