Ruth Negga (Breakfast on Pluto, Agents of Shield, War Craft) co-leads with Joel Edgerton (Black Mass, Zero Dark Thirty) in this film based on the true story of a couple, Richard and Mildred Loving who made history during the late 50s early 60s. Mildred being black, Richard white, and them living in the state of Virginia meant that they weren’t allowed to fall in love and they especially weren’t allowed to pro-create. The Loving’s battle to have their interracial marriage recognised and accepted reached the Supreme Court in 1967, causing a ground-breaking change in the law.
With such a meaty subject, what strikes you about this film is that it’s not your typical epic Hollywood legal battle dramatised for the big screen. The Big Case. The Big Lawyers swooping in from New York to come and shake up the quiet southern town with their up north ways. The dramatic lead up to the final showdown in court. It’s all. Not. There.
In the beginning you’re not actually sure what’s going on. In that, as the viewer you’re dropped into this world without much explanation. Forcing you to reassess everything film has ever told you about the deep south during times post slavery, pre-racial equality, that bit in the middle that we’ve repeatedly been told that things were extremely bad for black folks. Edgerton’s Richard stands out as being the only white in the black part of town, at a time when whites were not usually down for socialising with blacks. Where whites saw blacks as their sub-human subordinates. Richard is amongst Mildred, her brothers and friends comfortably. Quite early into the film we see Richard and Mildred kissing in public during a local drag race, the only notion that people aren’t happy with these two is the glare of the four white men who lose the drag race.
We also don’t see much of the love between Richard and Mildred in the way that we’re used to. There are no long conversations, no sex scenes, not much physical interaction at all, communication is muted of word, and dependent on looks, and expression. Richard’s family are also depicted as being happy with the relationship. His mother the local midwife, another unusual position for a film like this – usually we see the old southern black grandmother taking the lead of area doula. But his mother is also fine with her son being openly in a relationship with a local black gal. Treating Mildred with casual love and respect as if they weren’t courting life threatening danger.
Because of the initial set up of the story, I couldn’t connect with Loving at first. I’m not sure that I still have post credits. But it’s a good film… I think… What’s missing are all the things I mentioned above. The drama, the loudness, the RACISM. The N-word. I was waiting for the N-word… but it came in quite late and was rather subdued. Edgerton as Richard is kind of simple. Ruth as Mildred is too. They’re not really that clever. They’re not that forceful. They’re not soldiers for the interracial cause. They’re just existing. They’re almost confused as to why they’ve been arrested. They seem bemused that people would be against their relationship. It all seems a bit of an inconvenient surprise to them and it was watching their seeming confusion, which started my numerous head frowns and ‘huh’ moments throughout the film.
The Loving’s lived during a time when everyone knows blacks and white didn’t; couldn’t comfortably mix, so why were they so open? Why did they think that they’d be okay? Why were their families not more forewarning? We get a glimpse of Mildred’s father’s (Christopher Mann – Bourne Legacy) discomfort when he follows the couple to Florida where their marriage wasn’t considered illegal, to serve as witness to his daughter’s wedding. Then there’s a moment of random anger from Mildred’s sister, Garnet (Terri Abney – Greenleaf, Atlanta) when once again the law intervenes in her sister and husband’s relationship. Garnet shouts at Richard that he knew what he was doing taking Mildred to Florida to marry her… implying that no one else knew the risks. Yet, at an earlier time in the film, when Mildred gushed to her sister that Richard had asked her to marry him, Garnet was giddy, pleased and excited as if she’d been the one proposed to.
The problem I had with Loving is that it’s a bit flat. There’s a wonderful break from form which can be appreciated. It’s quite refreshing to not know how this story was going to play out. But there’s also something about rule-breaking, you must replace the rules with a new set of guidelines which can’t be argued with. When we meet Nick Kroll (Sausage Party, My Blind Brother) as Bernie Cohen the Jewish lawyer who, although inexperienced helps take the Loving’s case to the supreme court, there’s a lack of urgency. A lack of determination. Cohen’s character description – which must have included, naive, innocent, sweet, resulted in Kroll keeping a slightly irritatingly placid or smug half smile on his face throughout most of his screen time. Maybe this was a case of mis-casting or not strong enough direction but even though we don’t get the massive court showdown, I wasn’t so bothered because by that time I didn’t want to see Kroll take it on, as I’d probably not believe him.
Upon speaking to members of the audience after the screening, what stuck out for those who said they loved it – who were in the majority, was the simplicity. That Loving doesn’t have all the usual dramatics used to tell stories like this. That it wasn’t bogged down with lots of heavy-handed for effect racism. What also struck them were the facts. The fact that miscegenation is what drove the law. That the children of an interracial relationship were considered bastards. With many people in the audience being of dual-heritage, and or in interracial relationships, the film struck a hearty chord.
Bearing that in mind, what this film absolutely gets right, is that in its stripped bareness, it shows two very normal people who, are in love. Real love. The kind of love you and I experience. Again, it’s Hollywood’s fault that we have certain expectations of what on-screen love should be. In the real world when a man and woman choose each other to love, there are no birds singing at your fingertips; usually there aren’t emotional declarations made with boomboxes outside bedroom windows. There is no flash mob Jazz-stepping dance moves to the backing track of a classic power-ballad. There’s no drama. It’s, I love you. You love me. We’re together. It’s nobody’s business and that’s where Loving gets you. The chemistry between Negga and Edgerton is a weird one. There was a point where I thought that Negga’s Mildred could easily have been a white woman. Edgerton’s Richard showed no passion for Mildred being what she was. In another film, I’m sure there would have been numerous declarations from Richard shouting about his love for this black woman. But in Loving, it’s never focused upon from his perspective, or from hers for that matter. Then I thought, well why should he have made a declaration? Mildred and Richard, as Loving shows them weren’t revolutionaries on the front line fighting for racial equality. They weren’t well-to-do people. They weren’t educated. They didn’t want much except to live in their world without being bothered. That’s it. Their love just was (is). When that clicked for me, I could let go of needing to see more drama.
There’s a point in the film when Cohen asks Richard who has refused to go to the Supreme court, if there’s anything he wants to tell them. Richard’s simple response is, “tell them I love my wife”. Edgerton’s expression at that moment, is everything anyone who’s been oppressed for something they believe is so normal; so natural, has ever felt.
No this film isn’t To Kill a Mockingbird, A Time to Kill, Amistad, or the like. This film is Loving.