It can be too much of a burden to put on a movie, to insist that it offer a cautionary alarm about the conflicts and risks swarming into modern society, doing so with clarity and firm intent. It is challenging enough to tell a story on screen, especially one based in fact, when the needs of drama and the moral obligation of accuracy can tug on different sleeves, without the pressure of winning a moral argument. And yet that is precisely what certain movies can do. It is not necessarily an obligation, but it is a gift, at least of sorts. Relevance can arrive.
Loving, the new film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, debuted in May, at the Cannes Film Festival. It opened in limited release days before the U.S. presidency was decided and will be seen by most in the smoldering aftermath of that historic event. For most audiences, it will be be viewed in that context. No matter what motivated each of the tens of millions of voters who cast their ballot for a man who casually trafficked in aggressive hate, the most shameful strain of the national character has been given a triumphal moment. Suddenly and with ample, agonizing warning, it’s now difficult to see Loving as a depiction of a past we’ve moved beyond.
Richard and Mildred Loving (played in the film by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, respectively) weren’t chosen to stand on one side of a prolonged legal battle over miscegenation laws because they were the perfect plaintiffs, though in many respects they were, right down to their shared last name. In arguing that the state had no business imposing a social prejudice over which consenting adults could marry, there’s no more fitting name for the court case than Loving v. Virginia, as if the act of affection itself was standing up to testify. More than that, the Lovings were no rabble-rousers, fiery radicals hurling invectives as they demanded their rights. They were quiet and unassuming, humble people from the country who wanted to live a quiet life in the way they chose. With his crew cut and bricklayer build, Richard even looked the stereotype of the sort of redneck who’d be standing outside the courthouse angrily rooting for the outcome that would keep a mixed-race couple separated by the force of law.
The film, which draws significantly from the 2012 documentary The Loving Story, honors the individuals it depicts by adhering to their restraint. Nichols is careful and kind, blessedly rejecting sensationalism or manipulation, at least until he caves a bit and allows a few scenes toward the end that sprinkle in cinematic phoniness like a dash too much salt on a delicate dish. That restraint is the film’s boon, but it also hampers it somewhat, leaving a few scenes drained of the life that it tries so ardently to capture. In its reticence, the film can still command attention, especially when Negga is onscreen, showing precisely how a deep performance can be built around a person who choses to say little.
Since the recent election, the local university’s stellar film society have taken to sharing a Roger Ebert quote that can be reasonably viewed as his crowning paragraph as a writer:
We all are born with a certain package. We are who we are: where we were born, who we were born as, how we were raised. We’re kind of stuck inside that person, and the purpose of civilization and growth is to be able to reach out and empathize a little bit with other people. And for me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy. It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams, and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.
A movie like Loving accentuates the enduring value of Ebert’s thesis. The film is imperfect, but its flaws are almost irrelevant when held up against the truths it illuminates. In his stalwart intent, Nichols has made a work that does what it needs to to do, that takes that right stands, that offers a dose of heroism to those historic figures whose sacrifices are forever in danger of being erased in a country filled with people who are chagrined when someone else — some suspicious “other” — steps forth and suggests that maybe, just maybe, they’re deserving of consideration, too. Nichols has made a work that matters.